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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 26: Dvadtsat' Shest'

It grew dark. The opening credits appeared on screen:

Kafka Pictures Presents
Ghostly Things
A Film by Albert Mamaev
Starring Ilya Rozovachev, Yefim Provorsky,

something else, something else, and finally:

and also

The title of the film struck Yegor as familiar. Or maybe it only seemed so. Yegor adjusted his tie (Crybaby was very picky about the quality of tie knots) and sat down, like a statue, straight (Crybaby did not like it when he hunched), stared at the screen, and began to await Crybaby.

The wait was not long, but tedious. The film was shot in shiny, saturated colors, crafted with that technique that transforms shabby, unremarkable reality into a holiday that flowers wildly and marvelously like an ephedrine hallucination for two hours, and then wilts quickly. The film flowered, bright and formless, strained, foamed, and boiled incomprehensibly. The boiling took place now in Switzerland, now in Massachusetts.

For obtuse, slow-witted spectators like Yegor, each new location was indicated by a title: “Massachusetts” or “Switzerland.” Some sort of dude, whose name no one mentioned (or Yegor had missed) alternately wrote and read something. To accompany this reading and writing, the director cooked up a luxurious stew of Swiss, North American and, for some reason, Arctic landscapes, topped with a profound sauce of off-screen commentary.

Sometimes the dude stopped reading and began to eat. Sometimes he drank. Now and then he talked about what he had read and ate with random, monotonous personages who, having replied and disappeared, never appeared again in the film.

At one point, the dude received a note, opened it full screen, and everyone saw what was written:

“Mr. R. Any mention of Miss Moore and her mother is unpleasant.”

This extreme close-up strained the spectators’ eyes for ten straight minutes. Crybaby was nowhere to be seen. Yegor had begun to get bored and fidget, but the indistinct person sitting on his left, a connoisseur of art cinema on the level of Zarathustra, condescendingly reassured him, “Have a little more patience. Mamaev is always amazing. He deliberately stretches it out, so the ending has greater effect.”

Mamaev stretched it out another forty-five minutes and, finally, Crybaby came on screen.

Yegor sat up straight and fixed his tie. She was beautiful! She entered the Swiss railway car that the reading dude had gone into. She also read something there. They spoke about the book. She — Yegor remembered this — said that she liked books about rape and Eastern philosophy. Then they got married. Then they lay in bed in an unknown hotel. He screwed her for a full hour every which way. It seemed to Yegor that she was far from pleased with everything he did to her.

“There, it’s started. I told you so,” the poorly seen commentator to the left bragged to himself.

Then the hero and heroine of the film fell asleep. The dude woke up first and began to strangle his bitch. He strangled her at length, not hurrying, from behind. The cameraman devoted most of his attention, however, not to him but to Crybaby’s heroine. He showed her twisted mouth, her clenched neck, her bug-eyed face turning red, then white, her protruding tongue, her helpless arms.

Crybaby was already collecting herself to portray death, but at that moment the dude released her. She tried to make sense of it. She did not understand what was going on. She couldn’t believe what had just happened. This part was pantomime. Their words were not audible, drowned out by some foolish o-bla-di o-bla-da.

Was the dude calming her, reassuring her, swearing that he had been joking or something? He covered her with a blanket, even lullabied her. And then he began to strangle her again. And again, when the lethal outcome approached, he let her go.

Now she tried to run away. He caught her, strangled her nearly to death, then let her go. The same thing, seven times. On the seventh, he mercifully took the business to its conclusion. She perished. There was a pause in the stultifying o-bla-di o-bla-da. The roar of flames.

“Ten Years Passed.”

The dude is in the same room. He wakes up in the midst of a fire and is burned alive. Close up. Horrifying details. Terrible screams. O-bla-di o-bla-da from far off, quietly.

A shot of a wearily burnt-up dude and stool.
Song performed by the Beatles
The screen turned gray, black.
The End

Yegor, who had done just about everything in his time, who had disposed of bodies in various ways more than once, was nonetheless chilled to the bone by what he had seen and heard.

The same could not be said for “our own,” the regulars who, being fastidious, hired quick-shooting Yegors to do their dirty work. They were in no way crushed by the bestial spectacle and cheered the film with brave, happy shouts of “Cool! Cool, brothers, cool!” With ferocious appetite, they piled into the banquet hall and grabbed for the shrimp sashlik, the beluga caviar, and the long-stemmed champagne flutes.

Proceed to Chapter 27...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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