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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 44: Sorok Chetire

On top of this misfortune, the economic crisis arrived. The American end of the rainbow paper bubble burst. The nouveau-riche of all countries crowded around the pieces and, like fools at the market, stood and hung their jaws at the same sad, damp spot where, the night before, arrogant Wall Street had crawled skyward in its Babylonian towers.

Pumped up on mutually borrowed honor, silicon, and billions, our own elite drooped, withered, and was swept away. The fashion models got uglier. The sponsors blanched. Their homes got rundown, their assets and vehicles peeled off. Demand fell. People could not allow themselves the most elementary luxuries. They refused the necessities, economized on Montrachet and cocaine, and stopped thinking of verse and prose.

Bootleg Mallarmé did not sell, nor did legal Lermontov move. The markets emptied. After the wreck of the Brotherhood, Yegor still had a few individual clients. He still cleared twenty percent on the sale of Japanese haiku, ten percent on American beatniks, and about a third on the sales of The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. But these last sources of Yegor’s income dried up and zeroed out.

Having long dreamt of a peaceful life, of non-violence, and of a renewed, disinfected and sterilized fate, Yegor saw that this was not the most propitious time for retraining in the vegetarian professions and prepared to requalify as a building manager,

Crowds of people who had already forgotten which side of the bread the butter was on, who had barely gotten used to responding to titles like COO and CEO, who had only just ceased having visions of chopped-up partners and poisoned competitors, who had only just barely begun to live like human beings — all these people gushed back from the collapsed civilized stock markets to their native criminality, to their source, to floats, showdowns and shootings.

All the less frequently people spoke the word “futures,” all the more frequently the word “shit.” Rus’ again took up the flail, having seen that peaceful labor was in vain. Rus’ grew sad; only yesterday bingeing on easy money, she grew quiet. In all the churches, mosques and synagogues, they prayed for the gift of a high and spiking-higher price of oil.

Having lost his customary sources of income and not having found any uncustomary, Yegor rented the top floor of his house to a fugitive builder of financial pyramids from Chicago who was hiding from American sheriff’s deputies with two suitcases and one sport sack of dollars. Insofar as Mr. Dow — that was the name of the renter — hated to unpack his suitcases and sport sack, and because of this reluctance unwillingly, dishonestly and irregularly paid his rent, Yegor had to augment his income by stealing.

Because of his known inclination towards reading, Yegor robbed bookstores and libraries for the most part. The take was not large. His barefoot habits of twenty-five years ago began somehow to return.

He smoked filterless cigarettes; got drunk on cheap vodka and industrial alcohol; and wore shirts two days in a row. He had one hundred and then fifty-dollar sex; ate Chinese food and Odessa kolbasa; and slept from morning till dinner.

At night, if he wasn’t breaking into a library, he watched TV in the kitchen with the hundred-dollar girlfriend, with the pal from school who was always drunk and showed up from somewhere to stay with him, and even with Mr. Dow, who would run down to grab a piece of kolbasa from the table or drink for free.

Having grown dim, dull, and old on the outside, Yegor understood his fall, but did not feel it. On the inside, he was occupied with something, if not more important, then more demanding of his strength, attention and feelings. He no longer heard the silence. His soul rumbled and gurgled like a stomach.

Fierce goodness, hungry evil, and also something else that he could not recognize or name rushed through his insides one after the other, trampling down his heart and brain. Heaven and Hell argued over him. Angels and demons debated about what he would be.

Yegor returned from Ryzhik’s house in Lunin burning with the desire to settle things with Mamai. But the healing of his physical wounds required time; time passed, and his thirst for revenge cooled.

An idea came to Yegor. He thought of humility, of leaping from the Wheel of Samsara, of renouncing death and obtaining eternal life. Having sunk lower than humiliation, it seemed doubly worthy now to overcome the thirst for revenge, to act magnanimously, not to forgive, of course, but not sink down to the level of sin.

If he did not answer torture with torture, then there would be one torture less, so he thought. If in the struggle for life, you did not apply death, Yegor believed it was possible to become used to living without death. He became tranquil. He saw the light, but not for long.

The veil of goodness fell away at night, when he dreamed of Nastya, Crybaby, and of himself. Nastya thrust towards him for payment of the terrible bills from the Swiss psychiatrist. Crybaby threw herself on him, her head damp and wrinkled from tears. Dream-Yegor threatened him with throbbing holes in place of fingers. The dream-Yegor spoke in a droning monotone:

“Are you a coward? What else can we make of you? What are we to do with you? Call you a temporary guest worker, an illegal immigrant? Tear off your hair and balls, the rest of your fingers and ear, and stick them in your face? Take away your Mercedes? Stuff down your throat the honey of sanctimonious words about submission and the refusal to take revenge and in truth, refusal of us? Ha! Please, you would endure this, too, you revolting victim. You’re not a dove! Wake up! Feed the crows with the remains of that bastard scumbag! Take revenge on Mamai! Arise, prepare!”

In the morning, Yegor began the search for Mamaev’s rookeries and arranged with a police instructor to take shooting lessons for a person with a crippled hand. Fury no longer suffocated him. It embraced him, chuckled amicably, and ran out in front to scout for him. If something alarming approached, it delicately held back and slowed its pace when necessary, so that Yegor could relax on his own, imagining that he was acting independently and rationally. But rage’s resourceful approach worked no better than a frontal attack. The whole army of light took up arms against it.

Visions of Saints Michael and Januarius, of Batman and cartoon characters, of Antonina Pavlovna and Father Tikhon all appeared to Yegor, exhorting him to free himself from the devil and not contemplate evil. And Yegor was about to free himself, but the devil shamed him, inflicting upon him nightmares about Nastya and Crybaby.

Yegor went to the firing range, shot at imaginary Mamais, called and conducted inquiries regarding Mamai’s present location. And then repented again and fell into Tolstoyism. It was as if his playful, shaky conscience had a switch that clicked kill/don’t kill.

He felt hot, then had the chills, but was never completely feverish or frozen, just nauseatingly warm, not kind, not cruel, just weak. He wavered between light and dark, between angelic and demonic but, in both conditions, his conscience tormented him, nightmares plagued him, and he saw shadowy visions. And from both sides, he fled to the middle, trying to hide from extremities, to escape having to make a choice, and to decide nothing. But indecision didn’t work either. He could not hold in the center and was swept now to one end, now to the other.

In order not to fall apart from the constant reboots, Yegor made order out of his delirium and organized a regularly scheduled war between the equal strengths of both poles.

From Monday through Wednesday, he hunted Mamai, learned to shoot with three fingers, exercised his muscles for possible hand-to-hand combat, put candles for St. Nicholas, called the Holy Spirit to aid him, asked the Virgin to help him kill, and had a foretaste of unhurried, terrible, sweet vengeance.

On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, he prayed to the same Mary and Nicholas to free his soul from the claws of Satan, to help him be submissive and live according to the Gospel. He meditated, chanted with Hari Krishnas, cared for revolting old people in hospices, ate only granola and, in exaltation, contemplated the health of his beloved brother, the director Mamaev, whom he had forgiven.

On Sundays, he rested, expecting that on one of these free days, the storm that raged in his soul would subside on its own, an answer would present itself, and he would understand what to do, how to do it, and on which side.

Proceed to Chapter 45...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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