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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 41: Sorok Odin

Yegor lay down obediently and went to sleep.

Since he had foreseen the rage of fate and expected an ambush, he was not surprised when he woke up on an operating table, naked, bound and immobilized by rubber straps, in the middle of a spacious, windowless but brightly lit hospital room.

The medical tables and shelves were sagging under knives, scalpels, forceps, tweezers, needles and syringes. There were also tubes and flasks of colorful liquids.

The sterile steel of small pistols glittered among the scalpels, somewhat dispelling the generally surgical harmony and suggesting that this, nonetheless, was not a hospital.

Yegor’s face was in a spotlight. From all sides, pop-eyed movie cameras stared at his exposed nakedness.

“Good morning, Yegor Kirillovich.” Someone’s vigorous voice suddenly ran into the room. “I am the director, Mamaev. Welcome to Kafka’s Pictures! Nice to see you. I know you also wanted to see me. So let’s talk. There’s much to discuss...”

Over Yegor leaned a flawlessly excellent personage, a youthful man of about the same age, with the classically sculpted face of a celebrated artist who had successfully, despite his youth, played Dorian Grays and Chatskys in regional and local theaters. A pair of chrome tweezers clicked in the slender fingers of his right hand.

“Well, why were you looking for me? Tell me.” Mamaev smiled in a life affirming way. “And then I will tell you why I’m so happy to have you here with me today. So happy, so happy...”

“Where’s Crybaby? Is she alive? Or did you kill her?” Yegor would have snarled, but his weakened voice unexpectedly gave way, and he moaned.

So informal? I don’t seem to recall our toasting to brotherhood? Well, that’s your business but I prefer to keep things formal. I can’t do otherwise. That’s how I am.” The director almost laughed. “What’s Crybaby to you? And what are you to Crybaby? What difference does it make? You don’t love her, and she doesn’t love you.”

“There’s a difference.”

“Maybe I don’t know what’s up with her. So you saw the film, dropped everything, and raced down. But there’s no security here. And this is not a movie, it’s real. What made you decide that she... well... may have suffered?” reasoned Mamaev, with optimistically bright eyes.

“The scene of her suffering and death was too naturalistic,” Yegor forced out his idiotic explanation. “It was not acting.”

“Special effects! You have an outdated understanding of the genre. Computers portray whatever you want. We need actors less and less each year. Soon we’ll do entirely without them.”

“She was in pain. It was clear. And her face. It had such an expression... That’s how you die.”

“I can’t argue with that. You would know better. You know how people die,” encouraged the director. “You’ve killed a lot of people. You must know.

“So here’s one version for you. First, it was a movie. Nothing more. Your Crybaby is lounging somewhere in Sardinia in the company of her next producer, not worried about anything. But you don’t like that version. Otherwise, why would you come?

“We’ve got to hand you a tragedy. So here’s a tragedy for you. Again, no one killed Crybaby. She’s my mistress, sitting now in the next room, watching us through, for example, a camera and feeling quite happy. Well, is that better?”

“Let her come in and show herself. Then there’s no problem.” Yegor grew hopeful.

“You don’t believe it. And don’t have to. And in general, what good would it do you to know? Knowledge gives only knowledge, but not knowing gives... hope. I haven’t dissuaded you?

“Then version three: a comedy. There’s a club of people who like to watch how others die, how they writhe and beg for mercy, how they lose their humanity. And they don’t want simply to watch, but to watch brazenly, openly, in a crowded audience.

“They, however, have been led to believe that this is only acting, movies, that it’s, you know, avant-guarde, even ultra. The naturalism is justified creatively. We are searching for a new aesthetic. And a new ethics, possibly.

“There are one or two hundred people in the hall and only ten or twelve of them know that scenes of actual violence and torture have been edited into the picture. Documentary footage, so to speak. Live video. Live and dead.

“If such a thing is possible — and what is not possible in these times of ours? — then Crybaby is dead. Tortured and strangled. And what will you do about it?”

The director turned away from Yegor and leaned over a table. The collection of scalpels, needles and syringes jangled.

Yegor began to understand that he had not simply fallen, but fallen to the bottom.

“Why am I here?” he asked.

“This is what you wanted,” joked Mamaev. “The Khazars took a million American dollars cash from you for my head. They sold me to you. For starters. And then they sold you to me. For ten thousand of the same money. Not because they value you one hundred times less. But because, although our great poet called them irrational, they are in fact quite rational. And they correctly suppose that a million ten thousand is better than just a million. And here in the South, he pays well who pays last.

“The Khazars have controlled the South, if Gumilev was not lying, for more than a thousand years. That means they’re not fools. And with normal morals, such a mercantile, front-line empire would not last a century.

“We bought each other from them. The money is received, and which of us finishes off the other more quickly is our personal business and does not concern them. Honestly, you have to agree, these people are decent in their own way.”

“Honestly,” Yegor mechanically repeated.

“And now I’ll tell you why I’m glad to see you. May I?” Mamaev turned to him.

“You may,” repeated Yegor, feeling now not the fall but the destruction of his spirit.

“We’ve met before,” said Mamaev in a clipped phrase while he rattled instruments and bottles, “but you don’t remember. And why should you? Who was I that you should remember when or where?

“Nineteen-eighty-two. Plekhanov housing. Room fifty-six. A drunken party in memory of John Lennon.

“You don’t remember? But you were a shining star there. An intellectual, a poet. Reciting Ginsburg poems from memory, quoting Timothy Leary verbatim. Long hair, pockets full of plans.

“The girls there were pretty. They hung on your words as if you were a bodhisattva. You don’t remember? You were at many, many such parties. And there I was, a little know-nothing hick from the sticks. Stella was there too, a linguist, Moscow State University. Forgive me, but your Crybaby is no match for her. Stella adored you, like a god. And you were so careless with her, as if she was some dumb broad. You don’t remember? And then she suddenly comes to me and asks...

“For a whole year I had been dying to speak with her, one on one, wondering how I could squeeze myself into her thoughts. And here she looked at me, and not only looked, but saw and... asked me, ‘What do you think? What’s your name?’

“‘Albert,” I answered. ‘Alik’.”

“’What do you think, Albert? Does metaphor actually pollute spiritual vision as Yegor argues? In this sense, does Japanese verse devoid of comparisons achieve beauty more quickly than European or, as it seems to me...’

“To this day, I remember her question word for word, or more exactly, part of her question, since at that point you butted in, Yegor Kirillovich, and said, ‘Stop it, Stella. Messieur Albert cannot enlighten us. He is biased. Three or four days ago by coincidence I witnessed his lowbrow purchases in the Melodiya record store. “Blue Guitars,” “Flame,” “Pour Out, My Song.” Ask some other expert about your Issho and Basho.’

“And I remember your words precisely, Yegor Kirillovich. She was surprised. ‘Is it true you listen to pop and rock?’ And she turned away from me, turned away forever, Yegor Kirillovich. And the whole crowd, around twenty of your people were there, smart-asses. They giggled about me all night and for the whole week. You don’t remember?”

“I don’t remember. And I don’t understand where this is going,” said Yegor, not waiting for the continuation, realizing that the story was finished. He did not, in fact, remember at all.

“It leads to vengeance. Revenge is mine. I will repay. For that humiliation. No matter how much I’ve seen, my dear Yegor, no matter how much of life I’ve seen, I cannot forget that night. It’s beyond my strength. I wanted to forget. It’s petty, I thought, trivial, nonsense, juvenile. But I can’t. ‘When honor’s at the stake,’ one has to quench this thirst.” Mamaev was almost singing in his healthy, pure baritone.

“Quench by what means? Are you sure you’re not confusing me with someone else?”

“The usual means. The means everyone uses. I’m not confused. I’m going to torment you, my dear Yegor Kirillovich, torture you. I’ll edit the footage carefully. I’ll make fun of you, and take your soul. I picked you out long ago. I’ve been playing with you a long time. I’m not in a hurry. It was I, not Crybaby, who chatted with you on the internet.”

“I had already guessed,” Yegor cried out.

“And I tricked your Crybaby, put her into my movie, and showed it to you. And began to wait for you. And here you are. I’m not in a hurry. Are you?

“Today I won’t hurry. I want to torture you slowly. Here are tweezers for your finger nails.” The director turned again to face Yegor and began to show him his instruments. “That is, for tearing them off. And this is for pulling teeth. Healthy teeth, naturally. With no anesthesia, naturally. And when we shoot this mixture into a vein, you will start to burn from inside, slowly, until your consciousness begins to shut down from the pain. Then we inject this other one, here this one.

“But I’m just babbling, babbling.” Albert wrung his hands in a feminine way. “You can’t feed sparrows with fairy tales. You can’t feel full from promises. Let’s begin, Yegor Kirillovich.”

“Can’t you just kill me all at once, huh?” Yegor began to panic.

“No, no. Live a little longer. You’re still young. Although... You know, I’m an artist, a man of mood. Maybe I will torture you to death, or maybe I’ll have mercy, and release you in one piece. Or maybe, from hate, I’ll cripple you so that life becomes more horrible than death, and leave you to live out such a frightful life.

“Ah, how impulsive, how unpredictable I am, so utterly impossible.” Rolling his eyes again like a woman, Mamaev chattered on, and added, in a different, triumphant voice, “Let’s get to work, my beloved Yegor Kirillovich. Let’s get to work. Camera! Action! ‘The rest is violence.’”

Proceed to Chapter 42...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 877...

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