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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 13: Trinadtsat’

The time grew near for an on-line chat session with Crybaby.

When she had lived in Yegor’s apartment, long ago, she had always felt chilled and been mad at the cold.

“Why is it so cold? Why?”

“It seems to me that if it were just one degree warmer, everything inside me would begin to melt quickly,” answered Yegor, who had trouble breathing from the slightest increase in warmth and feared heat like the noose.

“You’re delirious, and I’m freezing cold. Better we go out somewhere.”

Not waiting for his reply, she simply stood up and left. Sometimes he followed her. Sometimes he ran after her. And sometimes he threw something at her, whatever was at hand (usually, the TV remote control). At those times, he remained home alone and marveled for hours at how two people who sleep together can have so little in common.

Yegor turned on his computer and messaged Crybaby. He waited and, in reply, instead of a greeting, unexpected letters of the alphabet poured out on the run.

“I have life because I love it, but it does not love me. I hold it, cling to it, but it... goes away. I believe it, and it deceives me. I adore it but receive nothing in return. So I become desperate. And I go to God because I have fled from men. I love God from un-love towards unbearable people. I love God for his not being a person. And I think there is no other reason to love Him, not for all these creatures of his, not for worms and seaweed, not for Koch’s wan and pale spirochetes, not for Iosif Vissarionovich (Stalin) and Adolf Aloyisovich (Hitler) do I love Him. Not for all this miserable woe and death on a world scale.”

“Rehearsing a new role?” interjected Yegor after a pause in the speech.

“Correct,” confirmed Crybaby.

“A male role, it seems.”

“A male role, but they gave it to me. The director is avant-garde. So I will play a man.”

“I can be your consultant.”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. There are no bedroom scenes and, outside of sex, men are simple like: ‘Dinner is served.’ They’re not marvelous. They’re flat.”



“What about men like Dostoevsky? Kafka? Wittgenstein?”

“Don’t get all worked up. Two-thirds of those you mentioned are not completely men. Even three-thirds, if you please.”

It was so bad between them that when Crybaby walked out, it didn’t get any worse. His days were painful, and his nights ached and continued to torment him with her or without her. No form of love fit this woman, the way no key works in a fire or unlocks a rock or a lie.

So he loved her not with love but with some kind of fastidious ailment that grasped at every thought. He loved her with bestial lust, with animal jealousy. And with an awkward, slender fear that poked out in different directions from his short memory: fear that she would betray him, change her phone number, laugh, disappear, and slip through his fingers back into that inferno of time from which she had emerged.

It seemed she did not love him at all. Her mind was not capacious, but it was sharp. Her appearance was rather ordinary. She was nothing to look at but, at the same time, she was magnetic with invisible power to the point of supernatural attraction. Her soul was made of stone, inhospitable, but hotly sanctified by the legion of those thirsting for her flesh.

A transitory lover, in bed she seemed to be just passing through. She always spoke carelessly, ate fast, and listened inattentively. She looked you in the eye, but as if in passing. And she looked right through you at something visible beyond reality, something more interesting and more beautiful.

In the most religious manner, she believed in another world, perfect, glossy, inhabited by George Clooneys wrapped in suede and chinchilla, where there was no sadness, no sighing, only an eternal party on an endless beach with Minotti furniture.

En route to the Promised Land, the beautiful pilgrim had to while away the time impatiently with her circle of dull males dressed in Brioni and packed into Porsches, and with expensive, brand-new, little things that went quickly out of fashion.

She stepped out of her luxurious dream into her dilapidated reality only for the most demanding necessities, for the most urgent need and, each time, only for a moment. She hoped somehow to wait long enough, to sleep through it somehow, eat through it, smoke through it, rest through it.

And then she’d be back on track towards the place where the sea sparkles, where no one gets old, smells bad, ever gets tired, loses heart, or goes broke, where miracle cream truly smooths out wrinkles, where pills for celluloid unexpectedly begin to work, and deodorant actually attracts the best men fattened into a frenzy on vitamins and energizers.

Though strange in some ways, Crybaby was in one respect like all women: she wanted to be an actress. Her passion was to leave her image wherever it fell: on film, in an amateur drawing, on the Internet, in a computer memory.

Once she recited the words from Cherry Orchard about wanting to live for art, footlights, spotlights, the stage, method acting, photos, casting and premiers. Having said this, she grew quiet for a moment and then walked away from Yegor, from the kerosene bootlegger, from someone else who had driven her in a lilac Porsche to meet Yegor, from the banker Svintsov, and also from his brother, the gangster Svinstsov, to whom she had sometimes run from the banker.

More precisely, she drove off with the crew of the film Continental Towers or, more precisely, with Yakin, the director of the film. She started to drive Yakin nuts and turned out to be disposable as an actress.

Yakin returned to Moscow without a picture (the creditors shot the sponsor) and without Crybaby (she left him for the actor Shestov). But you can’t get a role from an actor; he needs a role himself. So she quickly walked away from the handsome Shestov and disappeared into the unreliable confusion of movie actors, producers, directors, and critics. They filmed her often and willingly, especially the critics and assistant cameramen, but usually just for their own collection and only rarely for release to theaters.

And when these films were released, the theaters were stupid somehow, in the back alley of the film market, where miles of film spoiled by debutantes and dilettantes were piled up. Occasionally recognized masters made their way to these theaters, but only in order to secretly throw out garbage and trash. This was where films did not get done, did not come together or, if they got finished, came out so idiotically it was embarrassing even to call them non-commercial. But it wasn’t commerce. It was trash. You could pay people and they still would’t come.

Of course, Yegor did not guess or recognize all this at once. For almost a whole year, he heard nothing of Crybaby. He grew weary and bored, though he could not understand what he wanted from this bitch. She would never love him. He could imagine her his wife only in nightmares, unfaithful and ungrateful. Sara was better in bed.

But for some reason, he longed for Crybaby. He asked God for her, if only for a day, and was already willing to agree to an hour. If pressed, he would anxiously settle for a minute. He could make it work. He would try, and everything would be like it was before.

At first, he would feel inappropriately emotional, having sensed her whining tenderness at the edge of his heart. Then his blood would yearn for a woman and flow towards her, like a bitter ocean wave, like the blank gaze of a somnambulist or the howl of a young werewolf at the whispy moon rising in the seventh heaven.

And this surge would raise his flesh and carry him to her very lips, and further, to where a man’s blood usually asks to go. And when he had slipped off with Crybaby, he would immediately become enraged, tripping over her usual absurd lies, his awkward nearsighted jealousy recalculating all the cold steps and sharp corners of Crybaby’s darkened and barricaded isolation.

And then one day, he found an email from her in his in-box. The message contained insincere greetings and a heated demand for money, whatever he could afford. Attached was bank information for a bank with a name suspiciously difficult to remember.

Thus was their relationship renewed, virtually, on the Internet. They instant-messaged once a week, on Thursdays, precisely at midnight, like spies. However, there was little to keep secret between them. Through asides and hints, and also by analyzing her simple-hearted lies, inventions, and embellishments, Yegor pieced together a panorama of Crybaby’s bohemian adventures.

Being penniless and humiliated did not, apparently, knock her off track. She still strove to be on the big screen, on magazine covers and posters. She needed to be before everyone’s eyes and on everyone’s lips. She sent him a few images, photos and videos of herself.

It seemed to Yegor that she was testing him, and he was not pleased by the test. He was generally bored with her. And nonetheless he messaged and emailed her regularly. He put aside and put off at times even the most pressing business, but never missed a single session with her. It was if he were paying a shameful debt kept hidden from others, as if he were working out his own vile fate through this trivial babe.

A few more phrases from Crybaby appeared on screen: “I want to invite you to the preview of a new film I’m in. I have almost a main role.

“The editing is almost finished. It’s not completely done. There are still some graphics to do and voiceovers are in process. But the film is pretty much there.

“I should warn you, it’s unusual, even heavy in places. It’s not for everyone. Don’t expect light entertainment. But you’re an intellectual and aesthete. You’ll recognize its value. The role was difficult for me, so I’ll be happy if you like it even just a little.”

“I’m glad for you. Where can I see it?”

“There’s a closed screening the day after tomorrow at 9:00 pm at a club called Our Own. Ordynskyi Street, 2a. They’ll let you in if you tell them at the door you’re there by invitation of Timofei Eurobeater. Will you come?”

“Definitely. What else is new? When can we see each other off-line, so to say, not on the Net, in real life? Will you be at the screening?”

“I can’t make it. Let’s figure out when to meet after you’ve seen it. I’ll I-M you on Saturday at midnight. To be honest, this is my first serious work in film. We’ll have plenty to talk about. On Saturday, we can set a time and place to meet in real life.”




Yegor switched to a news feed. He was filled with clear and invincible determination not to go to any screening and not to connect with Crybaby. But he also knew with absolute certainty that he would definitely go to this unknown Our Own club and see this f*cking screening to the end, as if in a trance or under sentence. And he would dream in the half-dark of the cinema about Crybaby, about the upcoming, unnecessary, undesirable, inevitable meeting with her.

Proceed to Chapter 14...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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