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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 16: Shestnadtsat’

To this valorous man came Yegor. Accompanied by Abakum, he quickly passed along the standard route into the gilded anteroom of the sauna. The anteroom was the size of a large hall, in Rococo style as envisioned by a local designer and finishers from Kishinev.

Yegor hung his clothes in a closet encrusted with silver and glass, lined with kangaroo skin, and decorated with pearls. He wrapped himself in a sheet that was sewn by Gucci personally (as was written in the two-volume certificate, attached gratis to the Italian rag) and sat in the waiting line, in an armchair next to one of the doors to the sauna.

“He’s receiving today in the Russian sauna, Yegor Kirillovich,” warned Abakum.

“You’ll be third, Yegor Kirillovich. Let’s have a shot,” wheezed one of those waiting, a lower level minister of some kind of not completely defined affairs, fat, red without having gone into the sauna, with a prominent snout. He was wrapped in the same kind of mantle as Yegor. They had become acquainted a year ago and often met in line. Another visitor was in a general’s uniform, maybe a prosecutor, or a railroad magnate, or a diplomat. He, it seems, was here for the first time and appeared flustered, would be glad to go, but there was some great necessity.

“It’s harmful to drink before steaming. If we wait long enough to see Ktitor, we can have a drink afterwards, Andrei Stepanovich,” Yegor replied in place of “hello.”

In the meanwhile, an ample, middle-aged woman in a bathing suit jumped out from the steam room exclaiming, “Ah, it’s good! Good!” She was also an old acquaintance, a famous politician’s wife who came often to settle various questions with Ktitor.

Ir, hello,” the possible prosecutor said to her. “Well, how is he today?”

“In good spirits, good spirits. Don’t worry.” Irina offered encouragement from under the shower, adding, to the low level minister and Yegor, “Hello, Andrei. And greetings to you, Blackbooker.”

She raced off through a side exit to get dressed. Although it was his turn next, the general of god-knows-what could not bring himself to go in and let the minister go ahead of him.

The minister came out from the sauna in four seconds, holding one hand over his left eye, and with the other hand lifting a handful of dirty broken teeth to his good eye. Muttering at half volume, he began to get dressed with the help of Abakum.

The petitioner in uniform now categorically shrank into himself and left, asking where the toilet was. Yegor was glad, since he wouldn’t have to wait any longer (Ktitor, thank God, was more or less punctual) and without hesitation strode into the sauna fog.

The steamroom was overfilled with steam and dust, like yesterday’s evening. The steam was so thick that during the whole time of the conversation, Yegor could not properly see Ktitor. From time to time, a red-armed silhouette became visible. Yegor caught sight of a tattoo (on the left breast, a profile of Bunin, on the right, Franz Kafka en face with the text: “Vengance on cops for everything.”) Yegor also caught a glimpse of a large crucifix, not taken off in the oven of the steambath, but mercilessly heated and burning now Bunin, now Kafka. The unseen one spoke to Yegor from out of a boiling cloud.

“Well, secret policeman, have you brought something worthwhile or just more garbage? You know, I’m a believer, I love cleanliness. What’s holy is holy, but shit is shit. Well?”

This valorous man was also (as if there were not enough wild colors in his portrait) one of the country’s foremost connoisseurs of literature, a passionate collector of all kinds of literary miniatures, elegant stories, verses, poems, and plays. Yegor had planted this sentimental killer on the heights of literature, having chanced in his company during a drunken conversation to read to him eight lines of a contemporary genius who had vanished without a trace.

Stas fell hard, couldn’t tear himself away and began to buy beautiful words at godless prices. He published, at his own expense, a series called Stasov’s Reading in several handmade copies, leather bound with jewels and rubies, on paper specially ordered from Switzerland, with all rights purchased. He kept them in the safe, in his collection, for posterity. He had bequeathed the whole collection to the Russian State Library, basically giving it to those select two or three dozen known specialists, now living, capable of appreciating the value.

He paid the authors but did not respect poets and writers. He considered these latter some kind of buskers, people necessary to set the mood, but not authoritative. Yegor became his curator and consultant, and enjoyed his trust, though he wasn’t able to sell just anything to this discerning philanthropist.

“For now, I have only one story for you, Stas. But what a story! An entertaining little piece.”

From the folds in his sheet, Yegor pulled out a tube filled with curled sheets of paper.

“Someone new write this, or one of the freeloaders?”

“Someone new.”

Yegor thrust the sheets of paper into the cloud of steam that thundered with Stasov’s baritone voice. The baritone began muttering, “Fuggin ho’, yo-ho-ho, I can’t see sh*t, it’s not here, it’s here, under the lamp, yup, yup, aha, here,” and read:

A person can be born and yet not yet born. Fate nurtures us much longer than nine months. There are many who reach mature age; who establish themselves with a long biography, a family and possessions; who reach the heights; who reach even those very sacred positions of obligation we all know of. When they were born, these people had not yet really appeared in the world, and did not yet know what their name, or their image, or their calling would be.

I will turn now, however, to my own modest affairs and state that, like all people who are not very enterprising, I got married in my time for love.

(Women, I will note, seem to me like pauses in existence, pauses in which God conceals his fatal poisons.)

My acquaintances long ago persuaded me that we lived happily.

But there came a time when my wife smiled and said I resemble an enormous bird.

Some time later, on one marvelous Sunday morning, the kind of morning that makes one just want to do some easy reading, I awoke with the sensation that someone was watching me.

“You sleep like a griffon,” my wife said, and in her voice I heard the distant echo of horror and revulsion.

The next night, I was discouraged for the first time by her uncontrollable sobbing.

“Forgive me. I can’t sleep here. It seems to me that you are a griffon and under the covers you have feathers,” she tried to explain.

So we began to sleep in separate bedrooms. But then she began to hear the flapping of giant wings and was afraid I would fly into her bedroom

We consulted with doctors. I paid for a long series of disappointing diagnoses and useless prescriptions. One doctor prescribed Tazepam for my wife; another prescribed Valerian drops for me; a third, sprinkling anecdotes and tobacco ashes, recommended a reliable psychiatric clinic for both of us; still another murmured something banal about the normal cooling-off of spousal relations.

I began to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror and gradually discovered a great deal in my figure and movements that was undeniably avian.

After three months, my wife ran off, leaving a long note in which she blamed only herself and her absurd fantasies for all that had occurred. This funereal text contained two grammatical mistakes and four errors in punctuation. The word “griffon” was repeated nine times.

Then my friends came to comfort me and ask about the details. When I told them my wife had left me because of my resemblance to a griffon, they laughed, but one of them remarked that I truly did look like a griffon.

Since that time, pretending to joke, they began calling me Griffon. I became enraged and fell through into the darkness of struggle with my own gestures, grimaces, carriage and face, the sum of which in any combination pushed to the surface as a cawing griffon. I rapidly descended to final thoughts of plastic surgery, changes of wardrobe, and frequent moving.

All smiles seemed like sneers to me. I suspected even my most well-intentioned confidant of wanting to humiliate me with his polite silence about my obvious deformity.

Griffon, victorious griffon, oozed from every pore of my body like an incurable disease.

And so, another wondrous Sunday morning arrived. I awoke from a dream but did not come out from under the blanket, in order not to see the smooth, glossy feathers on my body. My long, bony extremities had become repulsive to me. I was exhausted.

Then, like all people who are not very enterprising, I took the simplest way to extricate myself from the fear of resembling a griffon. I became one.

And so, I am a griffon. And this is a bit strange since, due to insufficient curiosity, I had learned almost nothing about this creature. I know only that I am a big black bird, I have a long life, and I eat carrion.”

“Well, what do you think?” asked Yegor.

“It’s depressing. Why are you always bringing me this gloomy stuff?”

“I bring what they write. How much will you pay?”

“Same as always.”

“It’s a deal.”

The damp and smeared pages crawled out from the cloud of steam.

“Give them to Abakum. He’ll take care of everything.”

“OK. But I’ll give it to him on a disc. The paper is soaked.”

“Ah, the hell with it.” Stas threw the story on the floor. “Now you listen to me.”


Proceed to Chapter 17...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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