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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 24: Dvadtsat' Chetire

While still at the mall, still crying, Yegor looked at his watch, worried he would be late to the movie theater. As he scrambled out from the depths of family life, he grew anxious, thinking now about Crybaby. It wasn’t that his mood improved, but it rose. It stayed in minor key but crossed into some higher register. He began to understand that he wanted her, wanted at least to see her, even on the screen, even in lousy makeup, in a one-dimensional and poorly acted role, even that...

He ran home to grab a bite, change clothes and clean the white mint toothpaste and hematogen off himself. He washed; grabbed something almost like holiday fare, some kind of exotic, distasteful fruit soaked in champagne. He took a long time to dress, sorted through, poked at, and counted his suits and ties, sprayed on cologne and deodorant, wiped his cheeks, like Chichikov, with something brand new that made them shine.

He was dubious, then pleased with himself, then dubious again, then pleased again. He spun around in front of the mirror, like Chichikov, preparing for a rendezvous, a real-life rendezvous, not the first, but possibly the last. He was suddenly hoping that maybe she would come after all. It was the premiere after all.

2a Ordynsky Lane turned out to be a low-rise but very capacious office building, with a separate entrance and a hallway covered in expensive dark Italian marble that resembled cheap plastic. New arrivals were met at the door by guards resembling bankers who asked for passes or guest cards. Those arriving who said they were guests of T. Eurobeater were escorted to “Our Own” on the fourth floor without discussion and without passes.

The fourth floor housed a small film theater preceded by a buffet upholstered in crimson velvet. Alongside the buffet, they butlered cocktails and Kir Royales. Caviar was tossed around. They handed out finger sandwiches and petits-fours, and the sounds of kisses were heard.

The cream of society swirled around, kissing ears and cheeks. They were bestrewn with jewels, wrapped in python skin, covered with gold, platinum, and suntans purchased in the most chic salons. Wafting of Caribbean Sea and Aspen snow, they were charming, seductive, striking, trimmed of fat by yoga and diets. Real aristocrats and people who were actually famous were also there, but not many. Still, they seemed satisfied that everyone else knew each other and, together, they raised the most natural furor.

It became apparent at once that it really was “our own” who had gathered, friends who were rarely apart and strove to stick together everywhere they went. They were reviewing events from just this morning. Johnny Depp’s untalented managers were not able to drag him in to perform in this morning’s matinee production at the King George V Kindergarten. And it was for the sake of the dear children! This is what you get for those annual contributions? It’s almost criminal! They had to hire Zhenya Mironov for the role of Jack Sparrow, but do you think you can fool the kids? These are not the uncultured offspring of teachers, scientists and cleaning women at this school. They sensed the switch right away and made a scandal.

Much more positive reviews were heard of the oysters eaten yesterday in the restaurant The Lower Depths. There had been a birthday celebration for the billionaire Vetrov in support of small business, democracy, the Russian-American reset, murdered journalists, beaten-up lawyers, banned authors, imprisoned businessmen, etc., et al.

They also spoke about the group trip, the day before yesterday, to the opening of the nonconformist exhibition of a thousand broken goblets, organized as a sign of protest against corrupt bureaucracy, the KGB, the commodity economy, the high price of gas, superstitious democracy, etc., etc., etc.

There was also discussion of the upcoming, in a month’s time, group vacation in the Maldives, and the annual one in Tasmania. And so forth and so on. One got the impression of all these people, in a crowd that never dispersed, dragging themselves to every party in the city and to every Michelin feeding place on the planet.

Among these people, Yegor was a newcomer, nobody’s friend, but he was met politely. This circle of around one hundred in all was closed and had not opened for so long that they could not even imagine someone alien or dangerous in it. If a person was here, in their midst, it meant he was one of their own.

In this closed circle were those who had shot their own fattened-up, defrocked brothers; there were suspiciously wealthy Dept. of Motor Vehicles inspectors and sanitation inspectors with Vermeer collections; there was one progressive minister and seven of his lovely and graceful assistants; there was a famous artist and six of her husbands (two former, one current, and three future); there were two persons who each had eleven billion USD and were somehow familiar with everyone, though no one could ever remember their names; there were the notorious Palkind, Chepanov, Kloptsev, Erdman, Petrenko and another Petrenko, and still another Palkind, each of whom was worth around five; there was a platoon of one-billionaires and countless ordinary multi-millionaires.

With them were their wives, lovers, daughters, all about the same age: from fifteen to twenty-five. Among these last, astrologists, directors, actresses, journalists, painters, photographers, personal human rights defenders, masseuses, domesticated yogas, members of the democratic opposition, and other exquisitely bred small fry all swarmed and fed. They were all satisfied with themselves and with each other.

To be continued...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 861...

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