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

Chapter 17: Semnadtsat’

Stas’s phone rang with a sanctimonious Easter ringtone of the Solovetsky Monastery bells. The phone was custom-made, heat- and moisture-resistant with an auto-cooled body, so it worked in the steamroom.

“Hello? Hello, hello! Well. And? Got away how? Son of a bitch! Goddammit!.. What? You shot the dog? What dog? The dog who was walking? Hello... What’s the dog got to do with it? He owes me. His dog is innocent. Now you’re gonna get what you’ve got coming. For not knocking off the one you were supposed to, you sonofabitch. Right now... I... I’m a... I’m a believer. You know, you know... Here’s what to do. Take a rifle and pull the trigger, and don’t come back until you hit the right one. OK. Who else is there? Let him in.”

Ktitor threw down the phone and continued his conversation with Yegor. “Yes, yes, llisten to me. You’re foisting stale goods off on me, bro’, trying to make a fool out of me.”

“What are you talking about, Ktitor?”

“About what needs to be talked about. You brought poems?”


“Show me.”

“Here, these don’t seem too depressing.”

There there was time. There there was space.
Angels and demons gathered in place,
Demons in black, angels in white,
And gods from heaven with children of light.
It was very strange and rather noisy,
A cacophony of many voices.

They trampled all over the place
And lost all time without a trace.
The angels sang, the demons howled,
the gods laughed, and the children scowled.

“I knew it! I knew it! Just what I expected! Again, meter! Again, rhyme!”

Yegor lost his patience. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about it’s been a long time since anyone’s been writing in meter and rhyme. Vers libre, free verse, is in fashion now. I have a new supplier, advanced. He’s on the way. He’ll show some class. I’ll settle up with you, Samokhod. Dealing with you has woken me up. You’ve gotten old. You haven’t kept up.”

“Free verse is nothing new,” objected Yegor. “Whitman was already using it. And before him. Look, you sing the Psalms for days on end: there’s your free verse, with no meter or rhyme...”

“Have you got Cheval Blanc? Cheval Blanc for me!“ exclaimed a naked little gentleman comically gesticulating as he fluttered into the steam room. He opened the sauna refrigerator, pulled out an open bottle and glass, poured some wine without looking, and turned on the sauna TV.

“Ktitor, hey, Ktitor, you here? I’m going to be on right now. On the Culture channel. Where’s the remote? Hello there. Yegor? Nice to meet you. My name’s Gennady. Oh, it’s already over.”

From the steam-piercing screen, Gennady’s double, dressed in Brioni, grinned at the naked Gennady. The Brioni Gennady’s mouth was uttering something like “...istically”, probably the tail end of a lip-smacking word begun before the TV went on. He turned his satisfied gaze to stare at Yegor and was lost, replaced by a disheveled correspondent who mooed: “The famous film critic Gennady Verbal has just given us his frank opinion of the new film from director Albert Mamaev, Transparent Things.”

“It’s a pity. We missed it. Oh well, it’s nothing. They’ll repeat it on the evening broadcast.” Gennady slurped his wine.

“Genk, read something fresh that you’ve brought.” The steam concealing Ktitor rippled. “And you, Samokhod, listen to what our young geniuses are now writing. Gennady is my new supplier. Work, Gendy, work.”

“Walking down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon, what thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman.” Gendos began to work.

“Whitman. Got it. Go ahead.”

“In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!” continued Genk.

“Don’t go on,” Yegor interrupted. “Whose lines are those?”

“That’s super!” roared Stas in the thyme and mint-scented fog.

“Super, but tell us whose.”

“I can’t say.” Gennady averted his eyes playfully and seductively. “A young author, just starting out.”

“That author has already died. And at quite an old age, I would note. His name was Allen Ginsberg. This is a translation of the famous American poem, ‘A Supermarket in California.’ It was written, I’d say, around fifty years ago.” Yegor threw himself into battle with his competitor. “My goods may be stale, but Gennady’s are stolen.”

“No way!” simultaneously roared Ktitor and his new supplier.

“Check it yourself. Call someone who knows. Or search the Internet,” said Yegor, calmly and quietly, triumphing in his easy victory.

“Is it true?” asked Ktitor after a pause.

“Mercy!” Gennady broke into a sweat.

“So it is ‘Supermarket’?’” insisted Ktitor.

“‘Supermarket.’ I didn’t want to do it. I need the money. My mother is sick. She needs medicine. Expensive medicine. Mama, dear Mama...” Verbal withered in fear.

Ktitor summoned Abakum and gave him brief instructions: “To Buchenvalka with him.”

That’s what they called the old sauna at the edge of the wildly overgrown garden where they steamed the souls out of the guilty and whipped them with branches until their pulse stopped. Gennady moaned an infinitely pitiful “No-o-o-o...” as Abakum led him away to punishment.

Yegor and Stas were quiet.

“I beg your pardon. Abakum will call you when he’s free. He’ll pay you for everything. We will continue to work together. Nothing happened. Forget it. Go.” Ktitor made peace.

Heading to his car, Yegor met some Tadjiks dragging a load of firewood and kindling towards the old sauna.

Proceed to Chapter 18...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 854...

Home Page