Prose Header

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

After serving as a paratrooper, superficially and without satisfaction, which was a bit strange for a person who knew the name “Husserl,” Yegor decided to reduce his existence to a bare minimum. His idea was that the more faintly a person exists, the less evil he creates and the less he dirties the surrounding emptiness with such evil.

He strove to live as quietly as possible and got a job in a huge state publishing house as an ordinary editor in the sub-department of Unpublished American Poetry of the Second Half of the Twentieth Century. The work was, as required, easy and not demanding.

Works and translations of works by American poets of the indicated period flowed into the sub-department from regional publishing houses around the USSR. These works were forbidden for one reason or other which, by the way, was never explained. Or they simply had never come to light and never been published due to their artistic insignificance, their irrelevance, and the capricious tastes of the censors.

In the sub-department of UAP II half XX c., these texts were packaged by period (60s, 70s), genre (lyric, epic, song lyrics, etc.) and also by quality (masterpiece, good work, neither this nor that, graphomania, etc.). Some were filed, and some were forwarded to two addresses or more exactly, to two names: to someone named Yanis Anselmovich Lesser and to no less of a someone named I. Yu. Kuznetsov. Who these citizens were and what they did with the non-literary and prohibited works was not known.

Yegor read too much and became a graphomaniac himself. He sometimes imagined himself a poet (fortunately, not for long) and participated in murky literary counter-movements. They held meetings in order to think up a name for themselves, discussed plans for stealing amplifiers and cymbals and, as a result of their thinking and discussions, immediately fell apart and formed rock bands to play at drunken underground protests.

Yegor translated this and that from Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsburg, and was the first, if you please, in our “unrhythmical country” to hear with battered hearing the abusive black couplets of ferocious rappers.

His workplace at the sub-department was a nano-sized little room across the hall from the electrical room where, muttering to himself, he went every day to get drunk. Drinking in the electrical room, he would receive a shock from electrical current, shout out with a stupid cry, and be carried by the cleaning staff to the first-aid stand. Upon receipt of first aid, he was driven to the de-tox clinic by the the electrician, Uncle Tolya, an outstanding but unrecognized translator of Mallarmé.

The little office room held the entire sub-department, that is, in addition to Yegor, the chief of the sub-department, Yvetta Ivanovna Bang, and her deputy, Igor Fedorovich Chernenko. It turned out the only subordinate to these managers was Yegor. It’s true, the managers didn’t do much managing. Sub-department business was conducted in a cordial, brotherly way.

Yvetta Ivanovna was a woman with a powerful, incredibly thick torso. Her desk was covered with layer cakes, rolls, cheesecakes, crackers, buns, candy, and confiture. Some of the pastries were wrapped in sheets of imported poetry, and some not. Her desk was also piled high with biscuits, jam, cups, hotplates, kettles, and other instruments of frantic tea drinking. At work, she breathed laboriously, slurped tea, and munched on something without a break, did nothing herself, and didn’t force anyone else to do anything.

She was aging carefreely, like all people who were never in their lives completely beautiful and healthy and therefore were not losing anything with the years. Yegor would give her sarcastic compliments which would, by their ambiguity, insult any person who ate even moderately.

But Yvetta was overweight and, along with that, soft-hearted and friendly from laziness, from excess of fat. For fifteen years, she had been getting ready to fall in love with her longtime colleague and officemate Igor Fedorovich, but never quite got there. Buns and jams, chocolate bears and marshmallow distracted her every time. They were simpler to love, and looked much tastier than Igor Fedorovich, who stank of cheap cologne and tobacco, was covered with dandruff down to his waist, was too skinny, and at the same time was growing bald in vile, uneven patches.

And moreover, Chernenko was married to a broad as overweight as Yvetta, so that it would have been problematic, in the purely physical sense, to separate him from her more fortunate rival. And moreover, he was known as the greatest specialist in Europe on Wallace Stevens and awesomely declaimed “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” three times a day in the purest American English.

Yvetta Ivanovna had never read anything and was unable to distinguish Cummings from Kerouac by look or sound. She had been sent from somewhere by the administration or the party apparatus to manage the sub-department and had turned out obviously not to be a match for Chernenko.

However, she certainly was not his enemy and, in general, the three inhabitants of the little office room were good comrades. They became friends and shared the kind of friendship that does not require sacrifice, the kind of friendship that occurs among colleagues engaged in dust-free and non-stressful service on some empty little business of official importance. Management received more, and Yegor received not more than one hundred rubles salary.

He grew a bit lazy. Without going outside the bounds of this sleepy and unnecessary existence, distractedly, without appetite, he got married to Sveta, a one-hundred ruble editor like Yegor himself, who worked one floor above.

In comparison to Yvetta Ivanovna, Sveta was simply divine (or perhaps, simply a diva). She was stuck in the sub-department of Literary Monuments of the Tlön and Uqbar civilizations. She spoke Tlönish fluently and learned Uqbarish on the fly. Both languages were dead, and there were no literary works written in them known to science.

The sub-department was established in the heat of sensational archeological diggings in Patagonia, when Tlön and Uqbar had just been discovered. Everyone was waiting for the unbelievable lyrical and epic treasures sure to follow the first skulls and beads. But after a few years, all the skulls and beads had been dug up, and no literary treasures had been found.

And so the sub-deparment, established and financed the year before, possessed of a generous budget, did not get it its long awaited Tlönian Molière or its Uqbar Yesenin. The writings of Uqbar turned out to be entirely wasted on descriptions of all sorts of possessions, records of cattle holdings, calculations of hay reserves, and similar mundane needs. The hieroglyphs of Tlön monotonously praised their kings and made horrifying prophesies about the quantity of enemies to be slaughtered. There was not a whiff of literature in it.

The administration either forgot or was too embarrassed to disband the sub-department and, instead of studying literary monuments, its staff solved crossword puzzles, read not-quite-censored nonsense by the Strugatskys, and gossiped about the next adventures of Uncle Tolya, the electrician.

Sveta, it’s true, was an enthusiast. She corresponded with every Tlönian language specialist in the entire world. There were five of them, not counting her. And she devoted herself to the study of Uqbar. No one knows why. It wasn’t that she believed that they would still turn up dramatic or poetic masterpieces in these languages, but she considered her work unusual and by that means gratified her own vanity.

Yegor pitied her with pathetic pity, the kind you feel early in life for your toys and, later, for all women you get to know intimately. They often argued. Svetka cursed in Tlönian, Yegor in “rapper,” so that even when arguing they understood each other poorly and thus rarely took offense. Yegor did not want children. He felt he had no right to give anyone life and, consequently, the death that additionally accompanies it, without first asking that person’s permission.

And soon enough, all the same, before their marriage had begun leaning towards divorce, Nastya was born, and Yegor, with his cool, almost philological mind, concluded that the word “happiness” was not without meaning. His pity shone forth tenderly and became almost like love, though not for long, for just one minute. But from such moments, which in the course of a human lifetime may add up to a quarter of an hour, one still feels warm in the most frightening January back alleys.

Proceed to Chapter 9...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 845...

Home Page