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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 19: Devyatnadtsat’

Mertz noticed the person entering and made a joyous announcement. “Samokhodov’s here. Yegor, greetings. What have you brought for tea, Blackbooker?”

“Hello, Musa. Hello, everyone.”

Before immersing himself into Musa’s marijuana-warmed apartment, Yegor took off his jacket and hung it on a monstrous nail hammered into the door next to ski poles and a rifle hung there ten years before and forgotten by some biathlon athlete who had wandered off track.

Yegor pulled a brick of top quality pressed hemp out of his side pocket and ceremoniously carried it to Musa. “Made in Tyva,” he said, and added with significance, “Hand-made!”

Merci, you lucky boy.” Musa, with a gesture, ordered Ivan to accept the gift on her behalf. “But, Yegor, just listen to what these neophytes are saying. Lay it out, Vanya. Amuse our guest.”

“I was a churchgoer for three years,” Ivan went on. Before that, I was a Taoist, but that’s not important. After Orthodoxy, I accepted Islam. It felt as if I had washed myself in fresh light and a spring breeze... After that, how could I, how could I be Orthodox, Russian... Allah Akbar!

Ivan spoke somewhat nervously. He was a young man whose face, neck, even ears and hands were covered with shiny ooze from pimples, blackheads and boils of various colors and sizes.

“Allah is pure, without flesh but, in our Orthodox churches, they lick pieces of dead meat, fragments of bodies, all these relics, a finger from this saint, a foot from another one. Why don’t they kiss somebody’s imperishable ass? And where do they put the balls of these... Ah, what dirt, what rubbish!”

“Hands off the Russian faith!” Rafshan yelled at Ivan, holding his crucifix with both hands. “We hope for resurrection in the flesh. You want nothing but world domination. Relics have the power to save and cure. I cured my mother’s deafness with a jawbone of Saint Matryona.”

“Jawbones, holy wine, icons, candles, candlesticks,” said Ivan. “Your religion is like a warehouse. So many things, things, things in place of God. Allah comes to your heart not through things but directly from the Quran into your soul.”

“The Quran is a book, a thing,” said Rafshan.

“The Quran is not a book,” howled Ivan. “The Quran is the light of truth. You have shielded yourself from the world behind banners, behind the iconostasis and stigmata. You hide yourselves there and go around drinking and complaining on the sly. You threw away the USSR because it was hindering you from drinking and complaining, and you’re just waiting to get yourself out of the Russian Federation because what remains is too big for you. It sticks to your hands, you can’t shake it off. It’s too heavy to carry. You don’t want to answer for anything. You want to throw it all away, to deal in stolen kerosene and drink and complain away. And this all happened to you, because instead of faith, you have things and relics.”

“Quiet, you bastard,” Rafshan murmured through clenched teeth, without opening his mouth. He did not know a lot of Russian words and in an argument was reduced to cursing.

“Nonsense, nonsense,” Ratsov chimed in. “The city is full of garbage. It’s unclean. The streets are not swept. They’re whipping the sergeant’s wife. These are all earthly matters, and you people are trying to escape to heaven. The fatherland groans in pain, there’s no freedom, no justice... To arms, brothers, to TNT, to flash mobs, to the sonsabitches in the mass media.”

“You’re losing it, my dear Ratsov. Why don’t you work on your little explosive primus stove?” interrupted Musa taken aback. Turning to Yegor, she continued, “Did you ever see such a thing? Ivan Shahid vs Orthodox patriot Khudaiberdyev.” Musa’s glasses sparkled from the foam cooling off on the lenses. “Whither goest thou, Rus’, if you have only one defender and it’s Khudaiberdyev?

“Sit down, Yegor. Be so kind as to participate in the conversation. You’re the master bullshitter. Say something intelligent. Cool off these crazy young people.”

“Easy enough,” said Yegor.

He was pleased and in fact loved to babble about the ineffable. With his foot, he moved one of the broken stools closer to the trough but did not manage to sit down. A small child, oozing happiness, with a little ball in his round hands, leaped out from under the pile of junk and ran over to Rafshan.

“Ah, we found Petrov, Petrova’s son! You remember Petrova, Yegor?” Musa was so happy, her eyes bugged out. “You were going to screw her right there in that cupboard because there was nowhere else to do it. Eight years ago.”

“In the cupboard? I don’t remember.”

“She was rosy and sweet, aye? And now she’s so powdered with coke, she forgets her kids in other people’s apartments. She called this morning, yelling, ‘Where’s Petrov? Where’s Petrov? Find my little one, you murderers! Help me, you monsters! I’m his mama!’ And Petrov is where? Right there!”

With slender, spidery, five-flanged fingers, Musa drew the youngster out from under Rafshan, kissed him, and handed him to Yegor.

“You’re the only one of us who’s a parent. Feed the foundling. There’s some kefir on the table. I just opened it but didn’t drink any. It’s only slightly past expiration date, just one week, I think, not more. And you, mad bomber” — she summoned Ratsov — “call Petrova right now. Tell her Petrov has turned up. Let her come fetch him if she hasn’t hanged herself yet.”

Yegor took Petrov in his arms and poured from the ragged kefir container into his sweet little mouth. Petrov stank, but he was angelically cute.

“Objects and relics... Freedom and justice...” Yegor began. “Brother Ivan confirms the density of objects is so thick that light cannot pass through. He offers things in place of light, relics in place of the soul. He declares that Christianity is too corporeal, and therefore too limited for truth.

“Islam, on the other hand, chastely avoids objectification and corporality in its display windows and strives to go beyond things, past seeming worlds, straight to the all-high.

“Brother Naum teaches that we don’t need to go to the all-high, that all the work is here. It’s dirty work, godless, but it must be done for the sake of freedom and justice among people.

“I take it upon myself to prove that concern for things is not vain; and that the wish for non-corporeal bodies is pleasing to God and leads to freedom, justice and light.”

“Tell it like it is, Yegor!” Yulia and Foma stuck their noses out from under the trash.

“Tell us, tell us!” The others raised a ruckus.

Yegor continued: “Take Petrov here. He is now ten kilograms in the entire universe. Don’t neglect him, rock him properly. Someday he’ll be one hundred kilograms. A trifle on the astronomical scale, but there’s no rest for this trifle. They don’t let this this trifle stretch out on the divan and rest there. They pluck it up, though it hampers no one, annoy it, and bother it for no reason other than their own cruel purposes.

“While we sit here philosophizing, how many children are horribly sick, raped by pedophiles, killed in war? It’s not such a bad thing that Petrova forgot Petrov here, but what if this were a more depraved place? Petrov would be a goner, and gone in a terrifying way. What did he do to deserve it? When some scumbag suffers, when the executioner is executed, you think, get it over with quickly. He’s not well. It can’t go on this way.

“But this child? An innocent soul. Why would God condone afflicting him? It’s unjust and cannot be justified by any kind of Providence. Why the stations of the cross for children? Why Majdanek? Why Beslan?

“Even without Beslan, it’s horrifying. Petrov will die and all our children will die. They will grow old and bent. It’s unbearable. That’s where real un-freedom lies. That’s where injustice is in reality, and not in the question of distribution of lentil soup and the assigning of high-calorie positions.

“Why did Christ come to lead so many peoples? He said: there is nothing more important or better than life. Life must be eternal. He promised resurrection in the flesh. He proclaimed liberation from death. But we have none of this higher freedom. It’s all restless Ratsovian political fidgeting; an empty, evil affair; a desperate binge; pathetic noise to drown out the simple fear of death.

“And in times of revolution, entire nations of people are torn away from the horror of death, since life passes so pitifully, and you want a different one, a new one, a new life! The making of life into a god is a revolt against death, a crossing beyond our own boundaries — to freedom.

“Resurrection in the flesh — not any which way but precisely in the flesh — that’s where Christ has summoned us. That is the source of the interest in imperishable flesh and in the world of things which the flesh finds it hard to do without, in relics, in any object that is able not to perish.

“That’s why Christ led people to follow him, because he discerned in people the deepest... thirst, down to their very bones, hair and muscle. He discerned their stubborn determination not to not yield to time even one hundred grams of their beloved guts. He saw that the soul was indistinguishable and inseparable from the body, that the soul yearns not for immortality, but for livers, and kidneys, and glands.”

“Oh, they wish for glands! It’s truly so,” the young ones sobbed from behind the trash.

“Amen.” Rafshan clapped his overworked foreign-worker palms together.

“This liberation of life from death and evil, this excess of tenderness and pity, led to the deifying of life. In politics, it led Christian nations to democracy and, in daily life, to technical innovation.” Yegor digressed. “What does democracy say? It says: you, and you, and you, you all have significance; your lives have significance. Repression and the application of pain are the last resort, not the first one, always at hand as they are in despotism.

“What does Western science say? Here’s your airplane, you’re free to fly. Here’s some excellent medicine, be healthy and free from disease. Here’s a comfortable, wealthy city. Enjoy a long life here, free from mud, boredom and cold. Here’s fertilizer, here’s machinery, here’s genetics. You are free from hunger. Technology will emancipate people from cold, hunger, epidemics and other agents of entropy. It will emancipate them from death itself. We will be made from material that does not wear out, or with replaceable parts—”

“Nano!” shouted out Ratsov.

“What?” stumbled Yegor.

“Nano-materials! We will all be androids, eternal, dull.”

“We will be eternal, yes. And those who came before us will be resurrected. And mankind will achieve this with technology. We will stop praying, stop going to church, but will not stop believing. And we will feel sorry for life. We will invent devices for eternal life, the same way we now invent them for long and comfortable lives.”

“And so it shall come to pass,” mocked Ivan.

“Strictly speaking, there is no God yet,” prophesied Yegor. “He is still to come. He is that which has already begun to happen among us and must happen. In all places where men pity life, where they intercede on behalf of a small child, where they give to the poor, where they don’t rush to make war, where they talk to each other instead of punching faces, that’s where God happens; here, there, and with each passing year, more often and more strongly.

“He will be everywhere where, seeing sickness and poverty, man not only weeps and prays, but runs, and not only to church, but to the laboratory, to the university to invent medicine and means of producing wealth. God is there. God will be, and he will come from a machine, from a test tube, from a computer, from an impudent and compassionate thought of man for himself.

“Technology and not teleology will disclose God now. It’s pleasing to God that you, Vanya, live for eternity. It’s pleasing to God that you are well fed, that you do sports and have sex, that you brush your teeth, fly business class, live in a big apartment, have medical care so that you and Petrov — and also I — may live as long as possible, pushing death in this fashion farther into the future. It pleases Him that we don’t poison each other’s lives, that we don’t shorten, or what’s worse, end each other’s lives. Thus we will chase death still further away. And then, wait just a little bit more — cloning, biotechnology, genetic engineering. And there’s no more death, but only eternal life and love.

“Islam commands us to contemplate God. Christ foretold God and taught us how to make Him. Christ, through Himself, humanized God and deified man, making them one, in place of the second law of thermodynamics that tells of the omnipotence of death. The Christian God and his Christians destroy this law, since they find it unjust and limiting of their freedom. They are occupied with life, ready to deal with life, to repair it, to care for it, correct it, to strengthen its power, to increase its flexibility and durability. They have the time and strength, and the magnanimity through the centuries, to perfect the iron, stain removers, buses, parliament, sanitation departments, lawyers, and all kinds of vaccine and medication for pain relief.

“Christ is not squeamish about life. He lives by it and places nothing in the universe above it. And at the end of time, with Him, you have not some sterile abstraction, but the transfigured, imperishable flesh. You, Vanya, you Rafshan, you Musa, and Foma, and Yulia, and Petrov, and even Ratsov. We are in the finale. We are the sum of the world. Everything is for our benefit. Everything!”

A deafening ovation filled the janitor’s quarters.

Grechikhin suddenly spoke up, “Oh, why did I renounce Orthodoxy? Listen, Rafshan, take back your Allah for Christ’s sake!”

“The hell with you,” said Rafshan, crudely, not in anger, but just from the lack of vocabulary for rebuttal. “Yegor is not slandering Christ and blaspheming God.”

“Well, why do you want to be Russian? You hardly speak the language,” insisted Ivan.

“Yegor, you said something about not shortening each other’s lives, so that death sort of takes a step back?” asked Ratsov, having finished the bomb.

Yegor explained, “In the first stage of the struggle with death, if people stop killing each other, so little of death will remain that it won’t be complicated at all to overcome it. At the present time, most of death is caused not by elemental disasters, not by God’s anger, not by epidemics, but directly or indirectly by people themselves. As for the indirect causes, that’s long, delicate work, but we could renounce the direct causation of death, that is, murder, legal or illegal, right now.”

“And do you renounce it?” asked Naum, tossing the bomb from hand to hand as if it were burning hot.

“I have already renounced it,” answered Yegor modestly, blushing and growing embarrassed.

“Come on! If they come to ransack your bookstores and warehouses in Perm and Yekaterinburg, will you give it all away?”

“I won’t give it away, but I won’t kill them,” said Yegor quietly.

“But they will come,” insisted Naum. “They will shoot you in the head, and you will what, turn the other head?”

“I don’t know. I won’t give away the stores, and I won’t shoot.” Yegor frowned.

Naum did not back off. “Not peace, not war... Well OK, the hell with the stores. They’re far away. But what if right here, right now, I spit in your face? You won’t shoot me on the spot?”

“I won’t shoot you,” muttered Yegor, not completely sure of himself.

“You? Won’t shoot? But you knocked off Shobel just because he said Gogol had less talent than Tolstoy! Watch, everybody, I’m going to spit!” shouted Ratsov, turning to Yegor.

They stood facing each other for four minutes. Everyone was quiet in expectation of the spitting and, of course, the shot. Ratsov slowed down, not entirely sure he was willing to die here in the janitor’s quarters, not for a snort of cocaine, but at the hands of a politically illiterate brother.

Proceed to Chapter 20...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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