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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 43: Sorok Tri

Something like half a year passed; at the most, a year. Yegor assumed the role of freak but was not used to it and not able to really make himself at home in it. His wounds healed, but his body, on the outside and inside, remained covered with holes and dents. Before sleeping, he touched them with the stumps of his hands and prayed obscenely.

As if in the image and likeness of crippled flesh, his soul also began incurably to writhe, bend, and tear. Life near at hand was turned inside out, grew weak, and grew worthless.

Nastya, seeing her three-fingered, one-eared papasha, recoiled in horror and, having cried it out in the arms of Yegor’s former wife for three days, was dispatched to a Swiss sanatorium to take the cures by means of shock therapy and Alpine air using the last of papasha’s money remaining from the Khazars.

Yegor received SMS messages in German from the child psychiatrist there, rummaged in Internet dictionaries, and translated them himself. It turned out the only cure for Nastya’s condition was a prohibition of meeting with her father. As for any mention of the father or, equally, any photographic or video representation of the same, these were highly undesirable.

The doctor advised that eine kleine Tochter was feeling better and, in order to continue to progress, the daughter must break off all relations with the father, in person or otherwise; break them off for a time, a couple of years, well, ten maximum, if the case turns out to be difficult.

Captain Warhola, not forgetting about the flowers, decided to begin a new life and disconnected her husband Abdallah from his intravenous feeding tube. Entrusting a Catholic priest acquaintance to remove his soul to places not so distant, she herself dressed in civilian clothes and went to Yegor. She knew that he had returned from the south in not the best shape. On the phone, she cut his story short, declaring that she could love him in any shape; he didn’t know women; they had different physiologies; they loved rich old men; even Hawking had a wife for quite a while.

Upon seeing Yegor, she explained herself for ten minutes in just such a noble and self-sacrificing spirit, but getting near him and seeing him in more detail, went into the bathroom to throw up. Having thrown up, she left for good. It turns out, she couldn’t love him in any shape.

Her father did not share with the Chief the income from the pirate edition of Harry Potter. From all markets served by the publishing house, the profits poured in, and in unusual quantities. The old school friendship — based on the brotherly sharing of nice six-figure sums — fell apart from such a quantity of loot. Buried under numbers with nine zeros, the system of relationships failed. These numbers could not be divided by two; they could only be divided by one. General Warhola the elder was forced to throw the Chief into prison.

The long-withering brotherhood of the Black Book finally died out. Several of the brothers, following the Chief, were also picked up. Yegor understood that they would come for him any day now.

Old Warhola, however, didn’t millionaire it up for long. Someone at the very top, in a not completely courtly fashion, spoke out suddenly about corruption, bribery, kickbacks, protection rackets. Investment of state funds with wives, girlfriends, and nieces. The sale of state institutions, their departments, and individual bureaucrats to respectable weasels and criminal elements; the cooperative trade in sinecures, medals, prizes, titles; flow control; commercialized justice, high-paying patriotism — all of these long-respected enterprises, the centuries-old glue that bound the powers that be, were condemned for no particular reason as shameful remnants.

At the very top, however, they quickly understood that things had gone too far and began speaking respectfully of corruption again, as if nothing had happened. The powers that be had been shaken and besieged but had withstood. Not everyone had managed to hear of the new approach. And among those who had heard, not everyone had had time to be frightened before business resumed the old way, quietly and not sadly. Not everyone, but a few, however, were frightened and were punished anyway.

In those few days when, at the top, they did not grasp that there had been a bust, that a swipe had been taken at the foundation, at what was deeply held, without which there could be no Third Rome, the law managed to triumph lightly, and a dozen or so VIP crooks were thrown into the clink.

The security brass, having managed to become frightened, met in the Director’s office and decided that not everyone had to be jailed. One could be jailed on behalf of many. And if the war on corruption didn’t die down, they could jail a second. Wait a bit and. if things still didn’t quiet down, a third. And so forth. So no one would take offense, they would be jailed in order, in alphabetical order. Marshal Baranov was Director. But he couldn’t be jailed due to his rank. It was General Warhola’s turn.

He showed up in the same cell with Igor Fedorovich, the Chief, who had turned himself in. The latter had already gained a certain authority among the common inmates. From boredom, with no enthusiasm, more from habit, he was engaged in organizing small criminal societies of a human-rights and petty-criminal persuasion into which were recruited suspects, members of families, investigators and lawyers of their cases, guards, and even cooks.

Without greeting each other, the Chief and Warhola immediately requested of the prison authorities permission to fight.

The fight took place in the office of the warden in the presence of high-ranking prison guard officers and invited support groups. General “E” and General “Zh” came to cheer for Warhola. The Deputy Economic Affairs Ministers for Culture and Education and the writer Molotko came to cheer for the Chief. Bets were placed. The fight was broadcast on the police wavelength.

They edited their loins, skulls, and other limbs quite nicely and spectacularly. Once convinced there was nothing else to share here, they became friends again, closer than before. Then rumors spread that this friendship had grown into something more. And what won’t occur with male friendship, if it’s not interrupted in time by a woman? Why shouldn’t it grow into something more?

The authorities, hearing of their inexpressible and unprecedented intimacy, had mercy and combined the cases against the inseparable friends into one, strengthening by this means the union of two hearts as much as they could and as much as allowed by the less than tolerant customs of Central Booking and the times.

But not all the biographies were completed with such morally instructive happy endings.

The governor, Sergeich, for example, was aroused by love for the eighteen-year old friend of his niece. He took the occasion to ditch his second wife and three mistresses. He kept one of them in an apartment in the regional city of N, hid another in a remote district where he went to hunt and fish, and slept with the third when he visited Moscow to beg federal power brokers for budgetary alms.

He exchanged all three of these wondrous porcine maidens, full-bodied, of good morals and sober behavior, for a still unknown something. Diving bald head first, he entered into an intensive, noisy, and exceptionally troublesome marriage with the furious eighteen-year old.

He now showed up much less frequently in the provinces entrusted to him but more often in Ibiza and on Avenue Montaigne. His grumpy third wife knew nothing of conjugal debt, paid only in cash in Euros and in such amounts that it would have been cheaper for Sergeich and more prudent to buy a Lamborghini, fill the tank, step on the gas, and get as far away as possible.

But Sergeich softened, sensing that this love was his last. He didn’t believe in God and could find comfort only in that he paid what was required almost without bargaining and thereby protracted the stirrings of the flesh.

But his third wife told him he smelled like an old man, had wrinkles everywhere where they should be and where they shouldn’t be, was revolting when he ate, that his laughter sounded like sneezing, and that his birthday cake needed to be extra-extra large in order to fit all the candles.

As for Yegor, he was screwed and did not shy away from cosmetic surgeons, yoga trainers, and dieticians. He buried his wife under countless gifts, but her mockery and reproaches continued to reach him from under the heaps of cars, wines, dresses, paintings, furniture, homes, vacations, and lovers. And neither his pitiful bleating, nor the roar of expensive parties, nor the stacks of banknotes could drown them out.

His losses grew. His favorite chemical plant was put up as collateral. The provincial treasury was robbed. The regional merchants were wiped out. For the love of God, he took a loan from a loan shark. There was absolutely no money left for poetry. Everything was spent to purchase luxuries. Thus Yegor lost one of his biggest clients.

Around this time, Yegor fell out with Ktitor. After a drinking bout, Ktitor lowered his horns, stamped his worn hooves with an apocalyptic blow, and sailed into the sauna. Ktitor’s entire murderous enterprise had gone to his bodyguard, Abakum. Literature bored Abakum and upset his stomach; he wanted nothing to do with poems and stories.

Pavel Evgenevich stopped calling for some reason.

Don and Donbassiuk were not elected to the Duma.

Proceed to Chapter 44...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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