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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 18: Vosemnadtsat’

Yegor spent the late and last hours of Friday in a shabby old apartment on Trubetskaya Street. It was a janitor’s residence, crowded on all sides by offices, emporiums, service centers and fitness clubs. By some miracle or carelessness, it had survived the galloping greed of the big city.

Two philosophers, three poetesses, one revolutionary, and someone else had lived under the guise of janitor in this apartment. The landlord rarely showed up and permitted any dissatisfied, disheveled, poor pilgrim to spend the night and drink tea there. In the interests of democracy, they were allowed to stay no longer than two nights in a row, and guests were required to contribute something to tea time: sugar, pastry, a book, a DVD, cigarettes, intoxicants, wine, a toothbrush, warm socks.

The janitor’s residence was not even an apartment, but a wide, 10 x 10 kitchen with a gas stove, cold water faucet, the ruins of an expensive cabinet, and heaps of unnecessary chairs and stools, unwashed dishes, empty bottles, overflowing ashtrays, ragged sleeping bags, and garbage-stained TVs and laptops.

Rebellious graphomaniacs thrived here in abundance, petty, spiteful and prolific, like insects. Sometimes from the churning stench, it was possible to pull a larger beast, to land a big writer, a rare poet, like a deep-sea fish with glittering rainbow scales, twisting its wild tongue and fins, gurgling mysterious words, approaching close and suddenly, silently, effortlessly tearing away and disappearing back into the depths or heights, to the bottom or the heavens.

Yegor always left the residence with valuable loot. It was like trading with natives, exchanging pennies or glass beads for priceless pearls and even whole kingdoms.

Poems, novels, plays, scenarios, philosophical treatises, works in economics, superstring theory, sometimes a symphony or string quartet, were sold on the spot. These works remained in the limelight long afterwards under the names of society’s heroes, politicians, the children and mistresses of billionaires, and simply fictitious novelists, scholars and composers, those in charge of everything that is rational, good, and eternal in our god-given swamps.

That evening, there were not so many people in the janitor’s apartment. In the middle of the room, the mummy of a hippified beauty from the Seventies (of the last century), the bohemian goddess Musa Mertz, a fashion designer by profession and quantum mechanic by education, just returned from Shambala, was relaxing in her bath, a gigantic antiquarian trough full of hot foam.

An enormous burning joint the size of a clarinet poked out from her soapy skull. Such an abundant volume of curative smoke wafted from the joint that it penetrated everyone who entered, and it gave off enough heat to crack the walls. Yegor, who loved the cold, could not hope to last more than an hour there.

At Musa’s feet, having spread out her dusty dress on the floor and having laid out in a circle the necessary substances and parts, an itinerant demonstrator, the leader of the pro-Western ultra-liberal branch of the Nazi union “Great Rus’,” the son of a famous mathematician, barrel-chested with a face like wax, the bloodthirsty intellectual Naum Ratsov was assembling with difficulty some kind of fashionable bomb, following illegal plans obtained from acquaintances.

The bomb was needed the next day. An accumulation of Vietnamese and Azerbaijani merchants had been observed at the Dorogomilovsky bazaar, there by invitation of the Ingush protection rackets for briefing and warning. The density per square meter of the non-Slavonic element promised to be record-setting. A home-made bomb of normal power could, in principle, take out hundreds of Central Asian foreigners with one blow. In reality, it took out forty-seven, which horribly saddened Ratsov, but that happened tomorrow, and today he was satisfied.

The work was progressing joyfully. The foretaste of a solid catch of suckers and bloodsuckers tickled his stomach. Naum, rejoicing, sang out tunes from Lully and Handel in a creamy voice. At times, he broke into an urban folk song:

The affectionate aftertaste of unripe light
Wipes not the gold of God’s trash from the wind swept days...
In the broken sky — an eagle and a comet.
Rejoice, Russian steppe!
The storm gives birth to a khan for you.
He gazes north, caring and scaring,
And calls us to come out from under the snows,
We who do not resemble him.
He nourishes us with sacred sprits and kasha,
Defends us from enemies with off-road pride.
And look, having trumpeted the tin word
And hung up on the sickened winter,
He begins to lord over us in his own way:
He weaves out of us a multi-colored rope
And ties the fugitive summer to the pale earth.

Along both sides of the trough, broken chairs and boxes were piled up with some bananas on top. On the right side sat Rafshan Khudaiberdyev, on the left, Ivan Grechikhin, religious swingers, having just the day before switched gods.

The Muslim Rafshan had gotten baptized. The Orthodox Ivan had gotten circumcised and found Allah. They were sharing now with each other and with Musa their fresh impressions of their new faiths. When they reached the most intimate and piquant details of communing with the higher spirits, both modestly lowered their voices. Rafshan leaned toward the old woman’s right ear, and Ivan toward her left.

“What the...? Oh, I can’t bear it!” Musa began to laugh from their ticklish whispering. Rafshan and Ivan exchanged shy glances, and each received in reward a hit of good weed.

Behind the cupboard, between the batteries and the garbage bags, Foma and Yulia had spent their sixth month of honeymoon. They were young, drug-dependent giants of Russian rap, whose self-sacrifice the living classic of Russian rock, P. Jamaican, had managed publicly to praise a week before Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s dragged him from our Three-Penny reality to the serenely luxurious Strawberry Fields forever.

The young ones snorted something there with a whistling and a languid moaning, after each dose doubtfully announcing,

“No, Yul, it’s definitely coke.”

“Don’t be silly, can’t you feel it? Heroin.”

“It affects me like cocaine.”

“Fom, you’re wrong. Maybe it affects you like coke, but it feels to me just like heroin.”

“OK, Yul, what’s the difference? Let’s change the tune, otherwise we’ll start arguing. Give me a snort.”

“Go ahead. To your health.”

“I pray to God it’s not my last.”

Proceed to Chapter 19...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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