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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 25: Dvadtsat' Pyat’

A couple of guests approached Yegor: a billionaire dressed in Brioni with two women in Barbara Bui and three photographers, dressed so ultra-fashionably that the outlets for these clothes were not yet in business and no one except the most enlightened and advanced gay designers knew the names of these brands.

“Where will you take your vacation?” asked the billionaire, radiant with wrinkles of joy, smiling not only with his eyes, lips and teeth, but literally with his whole extensive, suntanned face; you could even say with his whole body, and suit, and shirt, and tie, and shoes smiling so energetically, as if to say: “Whoever is not smiling is against us.”

Yegor had to step back so this enormous smile could fit between them and not cause any damage by its breadth and excess power.

“On Sardinia, like everyone?” the billionaire went on. “Not me. There are too many Russians there. The only places left where there are no Russians are in Oceania.”

“And by the White Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.” Yegor sustained the conversation. “And also there are many places in Ryazan Province, in Tver, Kaluzhsky—”

“Very witty,” chimed in one of the photographers. “What are you, a patriot? Just don’t ask me my nationality.”

“I won’t ask,” Yegor parried calmly. “I can see.”

“Have you bought into an IPO?” The billionaire changed the sticky subject. “I put a half-billion on peat bogs, a bit more on United Novosibirsk Dumps. In October, we’ll do an offering of Ryazhsky ravines. Raise a couple of billion, I think.”

“But what’s in the ravines?” hissed the ramshackle journalist. “Why a couple of billion?”

“China is expanding. India is growing. They consume all kinds of raw materials, in any quantities,” explained the entrepreneur. “In the ravines... Well... sand, clay...” The entrepreneur grew thoughtful. His own words did not persuade him. He himself did not understand why this trash had to be worth two billion dollars, though he knew for certain that it would not be worth less.

In order not to lower himself in the eyes of his enthusiastic free-loaders and hangers-on, he vigorously continued, “Clay, water... I even remember an abandoned tractor on the bottom of one ravine, meaning, scrap metal... Well, stuff like that. China is expanding. They use everything, like in a Chinese kitchen.”

“I understand, I understand,” said one of the fifteen-year old wives with admiration. “On Thursday we went to Chew Fat. It just opened. Have you been there? They eat everything, just everything. Grasshoppers, grubs, some kind of hay. And they’ve created an Olympic-level contemporary dish: sweet and sour sneakers. Have you tried them? Delicious, yes? Delicious! These Chinese are amazing. And of course, they’ll figure out what to do with our sand and clay and everything. They can make a profit from dust. They’re not like us, sitting on gold but still beggars.”

She blushed in a touching, young way, flashed a ten-carat Van Cleef pendant, and grew quiet.

The billionaire, also blushing for some reason, walked over to the bar. The women and photographers rushed after him.

Before Yegor could utter a word, another very beautiful woman tossed out, “Where will you vacation?” She was dressed in Bui, holding a bag covered with jewels in one hand and, in the other, a small, pure-bred, short-haired, brown and tan boxer in Brioni, also not without jewels. “When will you take your company public?”

“I’ll take my vacation and then do the IPO right away,” answered Yegor.

“You should know that those are all false accusations and slander,” the beauty confided to Yegor, whispering loud enough for the whole buffet to hear.

“What false accusations?”

“My ex is writing a book. That scumbag Khomyakin is publishing it in Agora. All the publishers turned it down, but that bastard... I called him, ‘What do you think, you bastard, you’ll do time, bastard, for slander, like Lurye’. And he says, ‘You write a book, too, an answer to slander, and I’ll publish you, too.’ ‘You sonovabitch,’ I tell him. You want to get money from me, too, you bastard!’”

The woman whispered in Yegor’s direction, somewhere in the vicinity of his neck, while tugging from time to time on her boxer’s quivering little broken ears. The dog squirmed from boredom and every now and then tried to grab a bottle of Blue Label from the waiter who was serving it.

“Don’t believe anything he writes in that book. He contradicts himself. In one chapter he says I’m frigid and thirty pages later that I fuck like a bunny. And if I’m not frigid, why would I live with an impotent cheapskate like him? Ha!

“He says to me, ‘I am the world’s leading importer of casino chips.’ And I tell him, ‘You’re not an importer, you’re the world’s leading impotent.’

This very beautiful woman was now almost pressing her speech apparatus against Yegor’s face and hissing into his nose. Her breath gave off the ambiguous aroma of chewed shrimp.

“And I did not give the Mercedes that he gave me for our wedding anniversary to the hockey player Chuma. Chuma himself can hand out as many Mercedes as he wants to whomever he wants. I lost it, I mean, the Mercedes. I left it somewhere and ran off somewhere, then came back, looked around, and it was gone. It was not in the courtyard, not in the garage, not in my space at the gym, not at my dacha, not at my second dacha, not at my house on Corsica, not in my London home. It happens, but this miser... A normal person would just shrug and give me another one, if he really loved me. But he... Chuma, Chuma, Chuma... It’s all slander.”

Without listening to the end, Yegor ran to the men’s room, waited there a bit and seeing that it was almost nine, time for the movie, carefully came out.

“Where are you planning to vacation? I heard you’re doing an IPO? How?”

Before he was out of the men’s room, poor Yegor was met in the doorway by a handsomely greying and somehow youthfully aging multi-millionaire with the gravity and comportment of a progressive Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the type who at one time was played by the brilliant and talented actor Kirill Lavrov. The Secretary had a secretary, who lovingly and tenderly called her multi-millionaire her multi-millyushka, and at times most tenderly, simply my multik.

“Brioni?” Yegor answered the question with a question, nodding his head at the Regional Secretary’s blazer.

“That’s right!” admitted the grey-haired multik, livening up. “Did you like the film?”

“Haven’t seen it yet.”

“Me either. But nonetheless. You don’t have your own opinion?” The progressive Secretary squinted. “It’s not right, young man, in our times...”

“It’s hard to say. In any case, I have not seen the film.” Yegor did not understand.

The beautiful secretary of the Secretary gave a little cough into her little jewel-covered fist, and took the floor.

“The director, Albert Mamaev, in his forty-fifth year, is correctly considered a living classic of the Russian film avant-garde, a worthy successor to such destroyers of tradition as Dziga Vertov, Battleship Potemkin. I meant to say Eisenstein, Yukhanov, and Tarkovsky. He is too raw even for such cinema extremists as Pepetkin and Zhistyakov. Antonin Artaud and the Marquis de Sade would have loved him, but they’re dead. So scorn is heaped on Mamaev.”

Reciting the text, the young admirer of art gazed blankly, as if blind, somewhere inside herself, dragging the jagged, fleeting line of someone else’s empty rhetoric out of her brain, which was not capacious and unequipped for such work.

“You’re so clever, my dear.” The multimillionaire was touched and called Yegor as a witness. “Well, isn’t she clever? Admit it, she’s clever.”

“She’s clever,” said Yegor.

“To look at her, you’d think she’s just a dumb blonde, but when she speaks, she’s a regular Cicero, a regular Posner! She’s the kind of Zarathustra that you just hear her and forget about everything else... My little Zarathrustra!”

With such energetic support, Zarathustrochka chattered on: “Mamaev’s first film, Massacre of the Innocents, came out in 1997. It provoked fierce attacks on the part of the culturally enlightened oligarchy, the Christian mafia, and unprepared viewers. The church condemned it, although the plot was taken from the Gospel. The forty-eight scenes of rape, unhurried portrayals of the murder of very young children by various means, including the most cruel and monstrous, seemed too frank and bold for even those art film critics who have seen it all.

“And here’s how the director himself answered his critics: ‘If a low-budget film can destroy your morality, then your morality is worth nothing, your morality itself is low-budget and put on for show. My film does not destroy morality, it pushes it, punches it, pressures it and, in so doing, compresses and strengthens it. My film shakes up and outrages morality and, in so doing, awakens it, activates it, brings it into motion...’”

While Zarathustra was speaking, Yegor noticed a small smudge on her magnificent face. Looking closer, he saw that a shaggy, springy, wildly twisted gray pubic hair was stuck to her trembling upper lip which, as it moved, alternately covered and exposed, in the most inviting fashion, a set of valuable teeth on which a great deal of expensive work had been done.

“Excuse me,” he interrupted her speech. “You have—”

“What?” She lost her train of thought.

“Right there.” Yegor pointed.

“Here?” Zarathustra ran her palm across her mouth.

“A little to the right.” Yegor guided her.

“Here? Did I get it?”

“A little higher.”

“Did I get it?” The progressive secretary began to freak out.

“There, but you didn’t get it.” Yegor, ready to wipe the little bastard off her lip himself, began to freak out, too.

“But what’s there? Look, dearest, help me, will you? Don’t just stand there like it doesn’t concern you.” The blondinka threw herself on her Secretary.

The Secretary straightened up, squinted, and with two of the most delicate, well-groomed, youthfully aging fingers, apparently manicured only a half-hour ago, wiped the lively hair from the full lip.

“I got it, my angel.” He tried to hide his trophy back in his pants, but wasn’t to be.

“What is that?” Zarathustra demanded the truth. Multik showed her.

“And I’ve been walking around all this time with that!” The paramour quietly exploded. “For how long? Since we got out of the car... until now! And we... You introduced me to Schickelgruber... What will he think of me now? And I saw, he was staring at this silicon boob without a break... And I was talking with Kamarinsky, and with Irka, and Lenka, too... Oh my God, Lena will blab to everyone! Why didn’t you tell me? What, you didn’t see it? You don’t pay any attention to me. You just stare at those whores, you pig..”

Nad, well, forgive me. Nad, that’s enough.”

The Secretary cursed Zarathustra, who was boiling mad. Yegor, taking advantage of the opportunity, tore away to the right, exited the reception, and disappeared into the congealing murk of the film theater.

Proceed to Chapter 26...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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