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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 22: Dvadtsat’ Dva

Yegor thought and thought. Seeing that Nastya was losing her patience and only seconds remained before the Hyundai alarm went off, Yegor, seeing no exit, began to tell one of his old stories:

* * *

The city is enormous, like the world is enormous, like the city.

This infinitely circular image actually conveys pretty well that pre-Copernican view of things which is peculiar to me, as to all city dwellers, and which places at the center of the universe not God, not the sun, not even man, but the latest random urban gossip.

However, our ancestors, a proud nation of moneylenders and commanders, made the city the capital of such an immense empire, and settled in this capital such an incalculable quantity of inhabitants, and ornamented her streets with such priceless luxury, that the narrowness of my metaphysics is entirely forgivable.

I won’t describe the city, since those few who live beyond its boundaries have been here, even if only once or only passing through.

In order to start my story, I will mention only that any movement around the city is extremely difficult. People and cars collapse onto each other, day and night, in an irresistible flow.

So-called traffic jams were once a municipal disaster, but now, like any disaster about which nothing can be done, they have transformed into a way of life. People give birth in traffic jams, they die, they play cards, participate in elections, compose and perform songs. Certain stores, banks, and unions have gotten lost in traffic jams. One government ministry has even been forced to function in one.

It’s possible to move about on the sidewalks, but the pedestrian never knows where the crowd will drag him. The subway also has not justified the hopes placed on it: accidents, strikes, and hooligans have made this mode of transportation an attraction for adventurers.

Consequently, the city dweller rarely goes far from home and, if he does, few have faith in his return.

I, for example, never go to the city center — it is beautiful — and nothing will force me to visit the beckoning suburbs, whose mysterious and not entirely harmless atmosphere brought a brief international success to our cinema for a few years.

Therefore, after getting married, I was content to follow the advice of Pavel Petrovich. It appears he was Russian and taught patho-botany at one of the experimental schools where they equip unhappy teenagers with knowledge of all kinds of nonsense on the assumption — one must admit, correct — that the city will feed a worker who has even the most senseless specialization.

Pavel Petrovich offered to rent my wife and me one room in his small house. The other room was occupied, in his words, by an intelligent and quiet tenant, with whom it was a pleasure to live under one roof. Pavel Petrovich himself lived in the school greenhouse among plants that had been struck by the most exotic ailments. He charged a very low rent but, in exchange, required us to look after “a couple of things that didn’t fit in the greenhouse.”

The prospect was quite alluring: to have a place to live almost for free, two steps from the office. I worked in the Statistics Bureau, which for fifty years had been trying to conduct a census of the city population, without success. It was in a good neighborhood, with an excellent view and a peaceful neighbor. We moved in.

Peace and quiet, I would note, were especially important to my wife for partly delicate reasons. The fact is that half a year before our wedding, she had gone out of her mind. It seemed to her that she was the wife of Chopin, a delusion quite ordinary around here. You would hardly even pay attention to it, but she needed a composer.

She first saw me in some cafe. It seemed to her that I was Chopin. I didn’t notice her, but it was too late. A month later, her doctor phoned me and told me all this wild stuff. The unfortunate one’s parents crawled at my feet, sobbing, and told me the history of her illness.

They begged me to marry her, insofar as the wife of Chopin had to be married. Otherwise the delusion could become acute and might result in a lethal outcome.

Naturally, I refused, but they crawled up again, bringing the doctor and their daughter with them. The doctor babbled about humanitarianism and self-sacrifice, and Chopin’s wife looked at me the way no other woman ever had before. This Chopin got lucky, though I don’t know if the real one was married. She was a real beauty. I fell in love immediately, lied, on the doctor’s advice, about an unfinished symphony, and got married with pleasure.

I cannot say that the “couple of things that didn’t fit in the greenhouse” were not a burden. The fuss and worry when fetching this and that for them was more than my wife and I had expected.

The pathology of plants, up close, is no less revolting than human pathology. Among the multitude of amusing things in Pavel Petrovich’s apartment, there are some that, if one feels a certain degree of passion, are frightening. I offer, only as an example, a lemon tree that was growing down instead of up, winding around all its supports, striving to bury its branches, leaves, and unripe lemons in the ground.

Next to our bed was a cyclops cactus, covered with an ugly rash and riddled with disgusting tumors. The patho-botanist, absolutely seriously, instructed me, “Water it once every thirty years,” and handed me a bottle with a special liquid and a hand-written label indicating a date of use in the rather distant future. In my imagination, I saw myself and the cactus on that future day, both of us disgusting, sick old codgers, pouring for each other in turn from the treasured bottle.

There was also some kind of hyperactive moss. You could hear it rustling in the kitchen and it spread at an abnormally rapid rate. In one night, it covered the walls, ceiling, floor, furniture, dishes, and reached the hallway. Every morning, my wife had to scrape off and wash what it had grabbed, driving it back into its box. “If you don’t do it,” Pavel Petrovich advised with strange pride, “then in the course of a week, the entire universe will be overgrown with moss.”

But the most amazing thing in our apartment was our quiet neighbor. I didn’t realize it at first but, in the second month of our life here, it occurred to me that we had not even met the person living behind the wall and using the kitchen and bathroom jointly with us.

My wife does not notice such awkward things, the same way she does not feel fatigue when descending daily into botanical Hell. She is, rather, consumed with joy at serving the genius composer, and I try not to disillusion her. I recently bought a textbook of sulfege, in order to have, if necessary, a conversation about music.

One evening, thinking that the neighbor must be at home, I knocked on his door. I had the intention of introducing myself and — sinner that I am — of hinting at the necessity of his participation, within his power, in the maintenance of the diseased flora. No one answered my knock, and I delicately glanced into the room.

The neighbor was at home, asleep, curled up, face to the wall, dressed in wrinkled pants, worn shoes, and a checkered shirt with red hair tangled on the nape of his neck. It all came together in a forlorn surmise about drunken stupor. The only thing missing to complete the picture were the remains of a meal and some booze. But the air in the room was sweet, like after a rain shower. Altogether, the room was frighteningly clean and frighteningly empty. There was no one and nothing except the bed and the neighbor.

All evening, my wife and I tried not to make noise in order not to wake him.

Several times after that, I tried to speak with him. He was always home, but always asleep, in the same pose, in the same clothes. His somnolence, somewhat excessive, began to annoy me, since I had to walk around all the time on tiptoes.

At first I thought that he was active — it happens — when I was not at home. But then I took a week off because of my wife’s illness. In the spring, her disorder becomes more acute. She insistently makes Chopin out of me, and I have to be with her in order not to lose her. On such days, I portray the torment of creativity, scribble dots with fantastical tails on staff paper, and she rejoices to observe Chopin at work. This comforts her and gently extinguishes the ailment that flared up.

And so, for a week I did not leave the apartment and discovered that our quiet neighbor slept all the time, not awakening even for biological or hygienic considerations. This discovery increased my sadness and settled into my heart with alarm and desperation.

The first explanation, which my reason groped for in this dark mystery, was banal. I decided that the tenant suffered from catalepsy. My wife’s doctor, whom we summoned for consultation, heard me out somewhat more patiently than he normally listens to acquaintances he doesn’t consider patients.

Reluctantly, he leaned over the sleeper and confidently rejected the possibility of catalepsy. Respiration, in his words, was deep and tranquil, the way healthy people breathe following physical work that brings satisfaction.

Then I proposed waking up the happy laborer. The doctor, deep in thought, went into the kitchen. Over tea, he declared it did not follow that we should wake the sleeper. “In waking him, who are we waking?” he asked gazing into his tea. “He could turn out to be a criminal, or a dangerous psychopath with a razor in his pocket, or a false prophet, whose teaching plunges all mankind into confusion.”

I always trusted doctors and accepted their prescriptions gratefully. The sleeper did not snore, did not mutter in his sleep, didn’t toss from side to side. He wasn’t bothering anyone. And by the way, once awake, he would immediately begin to cause inconvenience, if not for “all mankind” then definitely for my wife and me.

After the doctor left, I found myself almost healed. But with the passing of time, the sleeper began to annoy me again. The word of medicine lost its persuasiveness. Uncertainty returned. I did not dare to wake the neighbor, but not to wake him seemed irresponsible. I needed an explanation, in order not to follow my wife into the blessed mental debris of idiocy.

Having brought to bear all my intellectual faculties, which turned out, I admit, not so fine or varied as I had thought before it became necessary to use them, I drew a new version out of the chaos and polished it to a mesmerizing shine: the sleeping tenant was not a tenant, and moreover, was not human. He was, there’s no other way to put it, a plant, suffering from humanoidism. He was some kind of mutated potato from Pavel Petrovich’s collection.

Encouraged, I phoned the patho-botanist, hurrying to reinforce the shaky foundation my logic had used to support itself with such frenzy. Pavel Petrovich did not appreciate my fervor. It turned out that he had never even laid eyes on the incomprehensible tenant and had rented him the room on the recommendation of one of his friends. This same friend had made an advance payment of a solid sum such that the recommendee could be whatever you please, even a potato. Pavel Petrovich had no complaints against him.

When I communicated that the tenant slept all the time, it made Pavel Petrovich glad and, in his opinion, should have made me happy too. As for the friend who had made the recommendation, he, in fact, had died recently. The sleeper has covered his tracks well, I thought dryly, listening to the dial tone in the receiver.

My mind endured defeat. My battle with the secret required fresh powers. I hired a private detective.

The detective inspected the sleeper, his room, rummaged through my wife’s and Chopin’s personal belongings for some reason, asked me ninety-nine questions out of which, in my view, not one applied to the matter at hand, received his answers, his advance payment, and that was it.

The detective returned later that evening. I didn’t recognize him at first. He had put on weight and grown a beard.

“You’ve changed,” I said.

“I’m someone else,” he replied. “My colleague is very busy and assigned me to give you the report of our investigation.”

I refused to read the report and asked to be made familiar with the conclusions.

“The results are as follows.” The detective significantly lit a cigarette. “The sleeper might wake up during the period of our investigation...”

“That’s out,” I said. “He’s fast asleep.”

“We thought the same. His awakening is unlikely,” the detective continued, unperturbed, “except that his dream might be caused by catalepsy. We even allow that the sleeper might be a recidivist hiding from justice, or a paranoiac in hiding. Finally, we have the right to assume this phenomenon is of a patho-botanical nature. Indeed, the teacher who rented you this room —”

“And that’s it?” I interrupted.

“Within the limits of the previously agreed remuneration. There is one other, more attractive hypothesis, but its development requires unforeseen expenditures.”

“How much?” I asked.

“With almost one hundred percent certainty, I can say,” the detective announced triumphantly, counting the money, “that the person in that room is the first cause and final consequence of intelligible reality. You and I, and this dear cactus, and the city, and the plains, and God, and the stars, all this is dreamt by the sleeper. To interrupt his dream would mean to stop time and dissolve the world. We would disappear the moment he opened his eyes. Society’s obligation and yours, most of all, is to continue to appear in his dream. In order to forestall the fatal awakening, we are prepared to ensure round-the-clock security for the sleeper, which will entail additional expenses...”

I kicked out the energetic merchant of global security and since that time have not tried to find an explanation.

Of course, it occurred to me to move somewhere else, but the thought of the effort involved paralyzed me in advance.

And my wife, as before, does not notice him.

So in his vicinity, we tread lightly and speak in a low voice, never disturbing the silence, whatever the goal of his dream, whoever he might be, this third person, sleeping.

* * *

Yegor himself got so carried away with his story that he parked at the mall, got out of the Mercedes by himself, reached the entrance of the commercial emporium, got caught up in the flow of customers purchasing ties, chandeliers, shirts, tureens, watches; bought a tie, a shirt, a watch, and was about to grab a tureen when he remembered why and with whom he had driven here. In a panic, he ran back to the car.

Nastya was asleep, oiled from head to toe in hematogen and toothpaste jelly of seven bright colors. Nastya slept, grimy, smelly, coarse and loud beyond her years, like a kind of drunken Brothers Grimm. Yegor got wipes from the drugstore and was about to clean his daughter and his car when he suddenly felt weak. He folded up the wipe, wiped his eyes, crawled into the driver’s seat and bumped his head on the steering wheel.

Proceed to Chapter 23...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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