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Near Zero

by Natan Dubovitsky

translated by Bill Bowler

Near Zero: synopsis

Yegor Samokhodov was happy as a youth in the Russian heartland but now, in Moscow, in middle age, he is estranged from his wife and daughter, and his low-paying job as an assistant editor is going nowhere. Looking for a way out, he joins a criminal gang, the Brotherhood of the Black Book. The Brotherhood is involved in forgery, theft of intellectual property, black-marketeering, intimidation, extortion, bribery, murder, etc.

Yegor’s girlfriend, Crybaby, invites him to a private screening of her new film, although she cannot attend. Yegor goes, hoping she may show up, and is horrified to discover he is watching a snuff movie where Crybaby is slowly murdered. After the screening, Yegor finds that Crybaby has disappeared. He sets out to Kazakhstan, to find and kill her murderer, the film director Albert Mamaev.

The story is set against a panoramic backdrop of Russia during and after the collapse of the USSR. Yegor’s quest brings him into contact with a cast of characters from a broad spectrum of Russian life, culture, history, politics and government.

Near Zero header links
Translator’s Foreword Cast of Characters Table of Contents

Chapter 5: Pyat’

Left alone, Yegor waited a bit, finished his tea, and eavesdropped on the conversation between the bartender and the waiter-waitress, Sasha. From their conversation, Yegor guessed Sasha’s gender. All the same, she’s female, he concluded. He settled the bill with her, quite generously, as was his habit.

Like many well-off Russians, he felt awkward with people who were serving him. It involuntarily annoyed him to be in the position of unnecessarily demeaning a person of modest means who, you can see, will not get rich. Tip too little and you feel ashamed. Give too much and people make fun of you; and what’s left for yourself?

Yegor could not express what exactly was demeaning in the work of, say, a waiter. But he knew for sure that if he himself wound up a garçon, then in the first hours of his new field of endeavor, the first fastidious diner who started poking at his food would get tagged by a Kamchatka crab claw or the bag of the nearest woman, or a tray, a pepper mill, or whatever else was appropriate for sudden, unplanned, hurried retribution.

Sasha, in the meantime, did not notice his extravagance and took her tip without a hint of gratitude.

The mugginess settled in, thickened, turned gray, grimy, black in places, and grew heavy like wet snow in early spring. The street was like a sauna. Sweating bodyguards languished among the Hummers and muscle cars, waiting for the valuable bodies lingering in the “Diamond” or in boutiques across the street. When Yegor came out, the bodyguards glanced at him but, after a momentary assessment (No, not ours!), he was left alone and headed home.

Yegor himself never used bodyguards. He belonged to that rather widespread class of oddly rich Russians whose income and spiritual inclinations allow them to lead a millionaire’s lifestyle, to appear très chic, but at the same time not to have a kopek to their name. Significant amounts of money piled up but were spent quickly on God knows what. Yegor did not know how to economize or save, although he wanted to do both.

Suddenly, he would need a new car. Then came the demand for a gigantic contribution to the private school, where they were planning to send his daughter, Nastenka. The father of his ex-wife came down with the rarest of diseases, one treated with experimental American pills at an exorbitant price, such as only a socially responsible business is capable of extorting legally from the hopelessly ill.

The piece of land he had purchased at some point turned out to have a lien on it. The lawsuits dragged on for years, accompanied by lawyerly theft and petty bureaucratic swindling. The dollar fell, the ruble stumbled.

Or a business breakfast stretched unnoticed into lunch, and then into a wild party, and beyond, into a three-week spree with unbridled drinking of champagne; the hiring of gifted professional girls, bands and dancers; catering for the guests; and improvised trips to Paris for the sake of continuing the drinking and carousing.

And on top of that, there could be a divorce, and he would have to buy a house for his former wife and Nastya. And pay something monthly. And listen to outbursts about stingy financing and growing expenses for a growing child.

And out of boredom, he might decide to acquire a middle-priced painting for the sake of beauty and for leveraging capital. With advice from a specialist, he might overpay for some kind of Ayvazovsky water nonsense and, on his own, buy a watercolor by Klee.

And before the rush subsided, he might add just one more stupid purchase: a plasma TV in the gym, so there was something to look at while sweating on the treadmill. And then the other dumb purchase got thrown into the garbage can, turning out not to be a Klee at all, but a stupid forgery.

And after that, finally, for example, his “best friend” Sidorov borrows a pile of money on his word of honor, and then disappears without a trace, forever.

Yegor had no savings. It seemed unthinkable to live worse than he was accustomed to, but to crash into poverty with no new means of support in sight, that seemed quite simple and quite probable at any second. So, the richer Yegor became, the more irritable and unsure he was. “The well-built order of oligarchic discussions and the coldness of tranquil pride” is unknown to this kind of millionaire. Their future is not solid with shares of chemical plants and offshore start-ups. It is turbulent, murky and dreary.

And the most sickening thing one can see in such a future is one’s own pale and wretched past. A past discarded at some point, betrayed and fallen into oblivion, now suddenly overtaking the present, running out in front and ambushing life amidst the days of tomorrow. A past that was abandoned perfidiously and cruelly at night, like a helpless sleeping child, in order to flee to wherever. A past left with all its pathetic treasures, its first loves that became unloved, its boring friends and obsessive provincial relatives. A past left without means, without hope to crawl out of the stupor of memory, out of Old Testament poverty and naiveté. Such a past is teary and vengeful, like a betrayed lover. To meet with it, to tear into at full speed, means to disappear, to collapse for sure.

And therefore Yegor ran, always forward, without looking back, and without a goal, dodging memories, not knowing what will be, so long as it was not what was.

To be continued...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 842...

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