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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 39: Tridtsat’ Devyat’

Strutsky was a Russian officer held for thirteen years on foreign soil by the whims of war. In typically Russian fashion, he quickly came to feel at home among foreigners and could distinguish himself from a mountain tribesman only with some difficulty.

Strutsky had become a “brother” with the whole district, believing in Allah so as not to stray too far from God. By some unknowable means, he had even transformed his appearance: he looked like a local rather than a blond, snub-nosed man from Murom.

He also spoke and thought like the locals and, except for cursing, almost completely forgot our language, which process was hurried along by two contusions received in battle, one the consequence of a land mine explosion. That may have been the reason he took so long to grasp what Yegor wanted from him. And only when he heard the name of Captain Warhola did Strutsky suddenly understand and say, “Let’s go.”

After a half hour, already en route, he added, “I’ll take you.”

On the road, he did not converse and reluctantly smiled at questions, though at times a melodic little Arab song could faintly be heard from somewhere in his beard, which resembled a fur hat and burka.

The highway was worse than in Moscow but better than usual. They moved freely and were only surrounded once, taking light fire from a bunch of Wahabbying bikers. They came across BTRs of unknown affiliation from time to time. More often, they encountered haughty, fearless cows that would never yield the road to anyone.

A biker bullet grazed Strutsky’s ear. He mechanically slapped a bandage from his pocket onto the wound, as if swatting a fly that had bit him.

“You OK?” asked Yegor

Strutsky smiled reluctantly.

To pass the time, Yegor told him a story he thought up along the way, though Strutsky had not asked.

* * *

Savin was an engineer. He had a nice wife, also an engineer. Nice, but not more. Not to my taste. Savin was my friend. We studied together. The interesting thing is: why are we no longer friends? I’ll explain.

One Saturday, as often happened, I went over to Savin’s with a bottle of vodka. They had a one-room apartment. As a bachelor, I apparently was doomed to life incarceration in a communal apartment with roommates. So I loved to visit the family-oriented owners of separate accommodations. I felt welcome.

That evening was normal, comfortable and peaceful. We ate something, had a drink. Savin lazily scolded the democrats, sometimes calling them Jews for short. I half-heartedly objected.

Then they suggested I stay over for the night. I often did, sleeping on some old blankets on the kitchen floor.

In the middle of the night, Savin woke me up. He put a tea kettle on the burner. It whistled horribly. I didn’t have a chance to say anything. It turned out that Vera was sleeping next to me. That was the name of Savin’s wife. She was pressed against me with her face to my shoulder. I was dumbstruck, if such a thing is possible lying down.

Savin did not even look at me, that is, at us. He went out. The expression on his face was, well, his face would have looked better without it.

I jumped up and ran after him. I explained. His wife also woke up. And began to explain. We were all stirred up.

Somehow, Savin grasped that no one was guilty of anything. He remembered that last year in Sochi, Vera had gotten out of bed at night and wandered around the room as if in a trance. In the morning, she had remembered nothing. Sonambulism.

“Well, yes, lunacy,’ muttered Savin.

I told him I had suffered from something similar in childhood. My mother had been amazed.

In order to smooth over the misunderstanding, we sat down to breakfast. The thick silence was broken only by our strained attempts to prove to ourselves that nothing in particular had happened. We laughed unsurely. It was a wild breakfast. After the second cup of tea, I resorted to flight.

At home, after hastily arguing with my housemate, I locked myself in my room.

I was flattered by what had occurred. Perhaps something in the very depths of Savin’s wife had fallen in love with me. And she, possibly, would never be conscious of it, not even of the existence of that part of her which loved me. And possibly, deep inside me, something would be found that reciprocated and answered, not her nice surface, but her inner self that was in love with me.

It was Sunday, tedious. I decided to go to bed early and picked up a volume of Proust. That’s my favorite sleeping pill. Having taken several steps in Swann’s direction, I fell asleep.

I woke up in the middle of the night. From the cold. A downpour of biblical proportions had opened up. Some clever Noah, no doubt, was working on a boat.

I was dressed in my only suit. It was soaked through and seemed knit out of water.

Aside from that, I was sitting on a bench outside on some boulevard.

Aside from that, Vera was sitting next to me. She was sleeping. I hugged her. She was dressed in something white, soaked from the rainstorm, which I recognized, with difficulty, as a wedding dress.

While I was thinking, she woke up. I kept hugging her.

“It seems we’re involved with a wedding,” I said. She remained silent.

“It would be interesting to know if we’re already married or not? And where are the wedding guests? Have they already left, or are they just about to arrive?” I said.

“I don’t love you,” she said.

“I feel the same for you,” I said.

“It’s cold,” she said.

“I’ll accompany you,” I said.

It turned out to be Gogol Boulevard. I had to accompany her for a long time. I came down with a serious cold afterwards.

* * *

On the road with Strutsky, it began to grow dark. The highway narrowed and wound around. The mountains loomed higher and closer until they completely blocked the road. Strutsky braked. We both got out.

The legendary Mount Elbrus tore from under our feet into the sky, dazzling us with its summit the color of starlight. At the end of the road, a serpentine path lead further up, barely clinging to the sheer mountainside.

“Five thousand meters.” Yegor raised his eyes, remembering the geographic atlas at school.

Strutsky took a yellow suitcase from the jeep and dumped out onto the damp stones a pile of all sorts of coils and wires in which were tangled lamps, resistors, and switches. Antennas and pipes poked out. There were bunches of boards, speakers, microphones and even a speedometer that seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the business.

Sitting down beside this pile of trash, Strutsky sank both of his paws in and cursed for about ten minutes as he rummaged around, debugging it by touch. Finally, the pile of wire began to crackle, whistle and rustle, like a radio receiver with no housing. The arrows on the instruments began to twitch. The lamps began to blink like a Christmas tree.

Strutsky smiled to himself, pulled a pair of antique headphones from the blinking mess, slipped them beneath his officer’s cap, and began to shout unknown words at the pile. Judging by his intonation, he was trying to contact someone. He shouted, then grew silent, listening in the headphones, then shook his head affirmatively.

“They’re waiting. Nearby. Follow the path. You’ll meet them there. Just beyond Elbrus.”

He had not spoken so much in Russian for a long time. After each word, he paused to marvel. He kicked the loose strands of radio receiver back into the suitcase and threw it into the back seat. Yegor caught a glimpse of a label: “Ministry of Medium Machine-Building.” Strutsky jumped into the jeep.

“You won’t need it. Just go,” Strutsky said suddenly in distinct Russian, amazing himself, and raced off.

Proceed to Chapter 40...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 876...

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