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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 21: Dvadtsat' Odin

That Saturday, morning ran late. It was protracted, heavy and serious, like a night on sentry duty; dark, dreary, sticky, and almost unsuitable for awakening. It was after noon, and Yegor still lay in bed, worn out and unable to rise. He could not fall back to sleep. He turned the TV on and off, sipped water, and dozed finally to complete exhaustion, to a headache. He dragged himself from the toilet through the shower to the kitchen as if unconscious, without feeling.

He had breakfast at lunchtime but did not finish the homemade omelet that tasted like blotting paper. With indifferent amazement, the taste brought to mind that backward epoch when, during botany class at school, he had chewed such paper into vile spit balls for firing from sawed-off 13-kopek pens. The targets were two failing losers, the brothers Grimm, wild inhabitants of the back of the classroom’s Siberia, two intimidating dirtbags, left back in third grade, and then fourth, and — strange as it seems — in fifth.

These same two had only relatively recently and with great effort issued forth from those insurmountably happy childhood schooldays directly into the equally happy, adult, and all the more compliant modern day. One of them was elected by the people (oh, people!) to be mayor of a certain mid-sized city near Moscow. The other broke through to faculty membership in some kind of mid-level academy of rather exact sciences.

Yegor’s soul ached that Saturday for two reasons. First, he passionately did not want to see his daughter. And secondly, he did not want to be the kind of scum that did not want to see his own daughter.

He put on the idiotic T-shirt with the picture of Mickey Mouse that they had bought at some point in Disneyland in Florida or was it France? He put it on every time he met with Nastya, in order to do with the face of the famous mouse what he did not know how to do with his own eyes and lips: to look at his daughter with a friendly smile, tender and loving.

On the way out, he glanced with hate into the mirror and cursed the reflection. Then he stomped around the Diamond restaurant for ten minutes or so. Sveta arrived and handed over Nastya without a word, as if she were some melancholy spy exchanged on a bridge in some endless, ponderous and almost silent old film.

Yegor strapped Nastya in the back seat, sat at the wheel and asked, “Where are we going, Nastenka?”

Nastenka Samokhodova was one of those children who inherit from completely bearable and even sympathetic parents all the most unsuccessful characteristics, those that are unattractive, poorly formed, working only so-so, and, in addition, absolutely incompatible with each other and exaggerated to the point of caricature.

Yegor’s large, out of scale, bent nose was fastened to Sveta’s narrow face. Asymmetrical, protruding ears from Yegor’s ex-wife could not be hidden under the fine, thin hair transferred from her husband. Mama’s small, closely placed eyes were completely lost under the father’s Neanderthal forehead.

Yegor was slightly stooped; his daughter was almost a hunchback. Svetlana’s body had “matured” with the years. The daughter, at the age of six, had grown fat like a toad and was covered from head to foot with folds of fat like some kind of stewed pork. She continued to stuff herself with sweets, breathlessly adding more fat.

Yegor was lazy. Nastya was immobile, like a polyp overdosed with tranquilizers. Sveta was known as acerbic and venomous. Nastya was growing up stupidly angry.

She was an unattractive, unloved, unloving child. One had only to gather one’s patience and fatten her up to the size and weight of an enormous, round, stupid, one hundred percent cholesterolic broad.

Thus Yegor understood his parental obligation.

“To the drug store,” she said.


“To buy Hematogen and toothpaste,” said Nastya.

“OK. Let’s go.”

Yegor, not knowing how to play or talk with Nastya, always bought her everything she wanted, by which means he saved himself from his duty of penetrating into the nuances of her upbringing and at the same time managed to annoy her stern mother. They obtained select hematogen and seven tubes of various toothpastes from the nearest drugstore.

“Now where?” Yegor inquired. He could not imagine where one could take her. “To the movies? The zoo? Museum? Theater? Circus?”

“No, no, no, no, no...,” his daughter refused.

“To the mall for toys?”

“Yes, let’s go. They sell ice cream there and sugar-coated nuts. Let’s go to the mall.”

“Why do you eat toothpaste?” Yegor was horrified.

“All kids eat toothpaste. Mama told me so. You ate it.”

“I did.” Yegor remembered. “But not so much. You can’t eat a lot of it.”

Nastya sobbed like a professional, with no overture, in the suddenly familiar, resonant and courageously adventurous voice of the seedy Hyundai car alarm that woke Yegor at night three or four times a week. The alarm never went off right away. It took a number of kicks and exhortations from the unknown owner, an apparently intelligent and courteous person who, for the next half an hour would continue to disturb the peace (which had taken such effort to reestablish) with loud apologies to the neighbors for the inconvenience, apologies heard by the whole building.

Nastya, crescendoing to a sadistic fortissimo and shedding warm tears, observed her papa the way a biologist watches a white mouse that just received a horse’s dose of untested mixture which, if it doesn’t kill you, might cure something.

“OK, OK, Nast, eat toothpaste if you like. Go ahead, eat it.” The father, sprayed by her tears, capitulated.

The sobbing automatically stopped.

“Tell me a story,” demanded Nastya.

“First you recite a little poem for me. They teach you poems in school, right?” In a pedagogical tone, Yegor put forward his counterclaim.

Unexpectedly, his daughter declaimed a poem:

These rivers flow into the lakes
from which they emerge.
That’s clear, but where are the lakes
into which the great rivers merge?
They simply don’t exist.
That’s it. What kind of secret is this?
I admit, as a friend, I don’t understand,
but let’s suppose I somehow can.
Why do rivers rush in circles?
Don’t get upset. It’s not worth it.
There are no such rivers. Believe it.
That’s the whole thing. It’s no secret!

“Not bad. And who wrote that?” Yegor liked the verses.

“I don’t know. Tell me a story. You promised.”

“About Ryaba the Hen? The Wolf and the Little Goats? Maybe... Mickey Mouse?” fussed the father. He thought a moment and added, “And there’s also the story of how the peasant taught the bear to cuddle the mare. Although that’s for later, when you grow up... Or about how one maiden from the Agat clan, from the village of Kusumi, in the region of Katakat, in the land of Mino, during the reign of Emperor Kammu, in the summer of the first year of Eternal Joy, gave birth to two stones; and the great god Inaba, from the region of Atsumi, appeared and said, ‘These two stones are my children’—”

“Those are old stories. Tell me a new one. About Wall-E, for example.”

“And who is that?” Yegor became flustered.

“Just tell me something new.”

Proceed to Chapter 22...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 858...

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