Bum in New York. Sensation in France. Antihero in Russia
How Emmanuel Carrére, France's foremost author, wrote a too-good-not-to-be-true biography of Russia's weirdest dissident.
«I try, but in fact you don’t», says Emanuel Carrère — one of France’s most celebrated contemporary authors — of Ezra Pound’s «make it new» mantra. «Every time you try to make something completely different and after that you discover you’ve made the exact same thing». But, in reality, by way of un-reality, Carrère has rewritten history with his latest book: Limonov — a Novel in English. The book is a part-fictionalised autobiography of a fascinating paradox: the eponymous mid-level Russian writer and ex-leader of the National Bolshevik Party: an opposition campaigner and out-and-out capital F Fascist who called for the re-capture of Crimea from Ukraine (along with the seizing of Kazakhstan, among other things) years before his great enemy Vladimir Putin greenlit the operation. It's subtitled in America «The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum inNew York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia» for good reason.
«A good writer but not a great one», a grotesque anti-hero with a punk attitude to literature and — to put it nicely — illegible politics: Dazed sat down with Carrère to talk about the many faces of Eduard Limonov, Russian nationalism and repeating history.
— There’s plenty of interesting characters in the world — why Eduard Limonov?
— I’ve known him for quite a long time, in very different moments. I thought doing some kind of portrait of him was a good idea for telling something of contemporary Russia — I thought he was a good character to show something about the contradictions and cares of Russian society now.
— A good fable?
— Yes. After the first step, a long article for a magazine, I didn’t know any better than before beginning writing and before meeting him what I thought about him. If I liked him or not. I had the idea that there was the opportunity of doing, in the same book, two quite different things that I had never done: an adventure novel — a real adventure novel — a roman picaresque — and also a history book. Not a historical novel but a book of history. So there was this bet that a strange and paradoxical and, in a way, repulsive character, could be a good hero to embody all these things.
— Is that why you decided to write it as a novel? You’re no stranger to non-fiction, you could easily have written a straight-up biography of Limonov.
— It’s the genre question. If a novel is about imaginary characters and events then it’s not a novel: most of the events are true and if they are not it’s because I’m ignoring them. It’s written like a novel and I hope it has the appeal and the excitement of a novel. It would not be honest to say it’s a biography because as a biography it’s not completely reliable — I didn’t check most of the facts; I decided to trust most of what Limonov said about his life. I don’t expect the Reader to believe everything I say because I don’t expect them to believe everything Limonov tells us.
— It’s not a one-sided book. You’re honest about aspects of his character which are not pleasant. But do you think there’s a danger in writing a book in this way — that maybe you might be mythologising this character who, amongst other things, fired guns at a beleaguered Sarajevo with Radovan Karadzic?
— Before deciding on the title I thought about another: «a hero of our time» — if you’ve read A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, these are not pleasant characters. And, in a way, he is a hero. The hero is not always a good guy. There was a moment writing the book, where I arrived at the Bosnia episode, where I felt completely disgusted and I dropped the book for a year. At that time he was not only on the wrong side, but also grotesque.
The book deals with fascism, and I think Limonov is a real fascist. I remember: someone quoted me a sentence by Pasolini — «you must not underestimate the charm of fascism», if you do you understand nothing. So that was part of the bet of the book; to write something about someone I consider a fascist, which doesn’t mean I consider them completely a bad guy, he is also courageous, he has a kind of morality, he’s never on the side of the powerful.
As a child most little boys dream of a life like Limonov’s. Even if it’s immature, he never betrayed the dreams of his childhood: being a bad boy, doing dangerous things. That’s part of the portrait — part of the disapproval and the esteem I have for him.
— Thinking about him being the rebel still, it’s strange to think that when he was imprisoned — this vocal opponent to Putin — one of the ideas, policies, that lead to that was the re-annexation of Crimea…
— He is in a very uncomfortable position and that’s why his political career is completely done. He is officially an opponent to Putin, and quite a courageous one, but he agrees on everything with Putin. He would be even worse than Putin if he were in power.
— Do you think his opposition to Putin has more to do with his desire to always be seen as the rebel than any actual political or moral opposition?
— Sure. When he came out of jail I think all the official circles of literature would have been very happy to open their arms to him and say, «be one of ours and you’ll have a driver and all the privileges and everything will be okay» — this he doesn’t want, and this I respect.
— When you started writing the book did you ever imagine that the situation in Russia would shadow the book, repeat history, so representatively?
— I certainly wasn’t able to anticipate what is happening now, but I was aware there is a very strong nationalist feeling in Russia about the dismantling of the big Soviet Union. I didn’t anticipate it all, but I wasn’t that surprised.
Karl Smith | «Dazed», 14 november 2014