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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 7: Sem’

In the non-summer, autumn-winter part of his biography, Yegor had finished a normal high school and enrolled in the above-mentioned college, knowing almost nothing about it. It was just the first one to turn up. He studied lightly and made it through, but without enthusiasm. He related to the sciences as, it seems, to everything respectable, with a condescension of unknown origin, a mocking curiosity, as if science were a provincial attraction surrounded by a crowd of middle-income tourists.

He had plenty of free time and spent it on friends, women, and also on reading, reading, reading: in the metro, before sleeping, while eating, before and after sex, to the degree consumption of wine and vodka permitted. He read tomes, volumes, booklets, big books, little books and simply books, at first indiscriminately, with the same mocking curiosity, and then more selectively, more exactingly.

In the last millennium, when his literary habits took form, it was still acceptable to read novels. These are fat, papery books full to the brim with myriad words. In those almost fairytale years, there were still miraculous readers in Russia, capable of overcoming War and Peace, The Life of Klim Samgin, and even The Glass Bead Game in any translation.

After all, educated for free and having slept well at lethargic Party meetings, what was an orthodox Marxist to occupy himself with? During free time, you could still find somewhere to go, but what was there to do at work? They won’t let you get properly drunk on the job. So you read. Gradual Communist Party-ization, itself composed of empty verbosity and rubbery needless details, was congruent to a tedious award-winning novel. So that reading provided support for trembling minds in the generally sluggish muck of a stalled-out life.

Gradually, Yegor understood that he was no ordinary reader. Formally, he had passed the lowest reading level, that of Chichikov’s Petrushka who, as they say, was fascinated by reading precisely as a process by which letters assembled themselves into syllables, syllables into words, and words into sentences which often signified the devil knew what.

The theme of a composition, its plot axis, the objects and characters described, did not interest Yegor. To the contrary, words separate from objects, signs that have flown off and detached from stilted structures, symbols that have escaped from so-called reality, these were for him an attraction and a joy. What interested him were the adventures of nouns, not of people.

Nouns didn’t smell, didn’t shove, didn’t bite. The accoutrements of everyday life, the dense accumulation of tinplate, of flesh; the sinewy, half-frozen meat of wild Moscow, bubbling with fat, tasting of iron, upon which his strengths fed, out of which he, or more exactly, his everyday surface, his normal shell was made, Yegor carefully peeled all this away from the great heights of creation, where fleshless, plot-less, aimless words played in the blinding abyss, free, combining, dispersing, merging sometimes into wonderful patterns.

The circle of his reading was delineated so whimsically that to share impressions with anyone, or even to try, became useless. To the question “What’s your favorite work?” he could reply only with great effort and considerable hesitation, something along the lines of: “The Epistle of Alabio,” on how there are not three gods, by Gregory of Nyssa, or the untitled sonnet attributed to John Donne, or several scattered paragraphs from Sholokhov’s “Virgin Soil Upturned.” And that was in the best case, the most accessible to the mind.

His taste and learning were strange. He himself soon saw how isolated he was and how completely excluded from all human subsets. In some marvelous manner, what he considered to be his real self was as if enclosed in a nutshell. His self, in all its immensity, had scraped out the insides and fit into this shell, and it was not able to get back out. His shadows, his puppets and impressions wandered on the outside, controlled for the most part more by onlookers, inhabitants of the external space, than by himself.

He thought to himself that his personality was organized in the likeness of an autistic person, deployed almost entirely inwardly. His connection with the audience beyond the boundaries of his self was only an imitation. He spoke with them in fake voices he had overheard from them themselves, in order to fetch books, food, clothes, money, sex, power, and other useful things from the raging Moscow that surrounded him on all sides.

He was certain that the divine mainstream of true knowledge was deserted and sparsely inhabited, that people rarely fell into its flow. He thought, to the contrary, that mankind was thicker and richer on the roadsides of divine providence. The citizenry seemed more willing to crowd into the dark muck of polluted shores, to cling to minor positions, and to wallow where it was murkier among gossip and superstition. There seemed no way to lure them out to the middle where the flow of white light is free and tranquil.

He heard what he could not sing and could not re-tell, but he heard it clearly. Through the noise and dusty obstacles of modernity and temporality that crowd around life in vain, he heard the triumphant laughter of primordial silence. It was flat and immovable, like Giotto’s frescoes. It had radiated for an eternity before we appeared, and rings out to this day for the few whose hearing is crippled in a special way.

He understood that he had heard it once in childhood. On one blindingly bright July day, at noon, the grasshoppers, all at once, had begun to hum. They let out a steady, flat sound, no louder than silence and therefore seeming to be the clear sound of silence. Before his eyes, the fabric of the visible, the wrapping canvass of beauty, peeled off. The seams of time parted. The outer layers crumbled and were wiped away. The stream flashed like lightning and disappeared. The forest and meadow rolled up like a scroll. The church, the little houses, the flocks and walled gardens flew off like frightened birds. The sun merged with the sky, like a shadow.

And illuminated by ancient laughter, the true things stepped powerfully through: the sun, gardens, flocks, church and houses, forest, meadow, river. They were the same in appearance and name, but in contrast to their fallen namesakes and doubles, they were not hollow. They were not inflated, not empty, not eaten out and chewed through from within by the rot of restless, slippery death, but the opposite. They were durable and succulent, made from the good material of silence.

To be continued...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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