It's me, Eddie
«I've noticed that the Russian media is significantly cutting back the flow of information about what is happening in Donbass», the dissident writer Edward Limonov recorded on LiveJournal on 15 September. «Apparently there is an order not to destroy the illusion of a continuing truce». He then listed the number of civilians killed the previous day by Kiev's artillery (twenty), noting the places in eastern Ukraine where there was fighting, the build-up of Kiev's forces at Donetsk airport and the launch of US-led military exercises in the Lviv region. «So the truce looks like war», he ended, signing off the weblog in his habitual style: «That was the morning sermon... I am Edward Limonov».
Limonov, now in his early seventies, prophesied conflict in Ukraine decades ago. There is a YouTube clip of him in 1992, after the collapse of the USSR, orating in the streets about how nationalism would lead to violence, demanding to know why Crimea, Kharkov and Donbass should belong to Ukraine and what would happen to the Russian-speaking population in the east.
Limonov's real name is Savenko. He was raised in the suburbs of Kharkov (or Kharkiv) in Soviet Ukraine, the only son of an ethnically Russian mother and a father who came from a family of Ukrainian peasants. He is a passionate advocate of the separatists in east Ukraine and their self-proclaimed «people's republics». He berates the Kremlin for not offering the rebels greater military and moral support. The goatee-bearded «guru» enjoys plenty of airtime these days, while the authorities take a milder approach towards the street protests of his young followers. The «Donbass uprising», as Limonov calls it, has given his public activism a new cause, while placing him at the furthest ideological distance from such pro-Western liberals as Gary Kasparov, with whom, not long ago, he collaborated in opposing Vladimir Putin.
This revival of Limonov's political energies could hardly have been foreseen when Emmanuel Carrère was writing the epilogue to this brilliant biographical «novel». «The historic occasion, assuming he really had one, has passed», Carrère remarked of Limonov's public life. «He's completely had it». While he wondered just how his resilient «hero» would grow old, Carrère felt uneasy at portraying him as a loser: «I don't like this ending», he wrote, «and I don't think he'd like it either».
Since the French publication of Limonov in 2011 (when the book won two prestigious literary prizes), history has contrived an occasion for Limonov to play the hero and shock the West yet again (though he is now too old to participate in the violence he once craved). «I dream of a violent insurrection», he wrote in Diary of a Loser in 1982, in a passage that Carrère copied into his notebook. Limonov was nearly forty then, a penniless immigrant on the streets of New York. «Give me a million and I'll spend it on weapons and stage an uprising».
The timing of the English publication of Limonov is opportune. It is hard to think of a book that presents more perceptively, or more engagingly, the bewildering paradoxes and perversities of Russian political and literary culture over the past half-century. Carrère traces Limonov's story from boyhood and youth in the suburbs of Kharkov (where he first developed his aptitude for fighting, sex, writing and sewing), through years as a young poet in Moscow's artistic avant-garde in the depths of the Brezhnev era (when he earned a living as a tailor, running up flares for his fashion-starved comrades), the splendours and miseries of life as an émigré in New York and Paris, and the succès de scandale of his novel of 1979, It's Me, Eddie, which relates in pornographic detail a sexual encounter with a black man in a children's playground in Manhattan. (Limonov later denied that the homosexual experiences he portrayed ever happened.)
Limonov returned to Russia in 1989 and became politically active in 1991. With the anti-Western ideologist Aleksandr Dugin, whose vision of a Eurasian empire he shared, Limonov founded a radical newspaper, Limonka (slang for hand grenade), and an unofficial political party, the National Bolsheviks. The Nazbols became a genuine countercultural movement with many thousands of young members. In the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s, Limonov backed Serbia. He showed up in the Balkans and was filmed firing in the direction of Sarajevo. In 2001, he was jailed in Russia for two years for illegally buying weapons. Other charges against him (later dropped) included terrorism and planning an invasion of Kazakhstan.
In Carrère's account, prison brought out the best in Limonov. The narcissist forgot himself; among his cellmates, he was the «good guy». In love, too, Carrère portrays Limonov as, at times, a «good man», capable of steadfast devotion to self-destructive women. Limonov is prone to grandiosity about his prodigious sex life: «when I am making love», he once declared, «I symbolise the gigantic eroticism of my nation». Among his five wives are some spectacular beauties: the model Elena Schapova (whom Carrère calls Tania), the singer Natalia Medvedeva and the actress Ekaterina Volkova, thirty years his junior and mother of his two children. Through all the turmoil of these self-reinventions runs an unbroken habit of work and a spartan routine of physical exercise followed by long hours at his desk. Limonov has published around fifty books, most based on his own life. Above all, he is the creator of his own myth. His latest work, Old Man, came out this year.
As Carrère draws on Limonov's autobiographical fiction, which hovers just beyond the bounds of verifiable fact, he reflects on his parallel evolution as a writer in his own «calm country on the decline». He wryly questions his Parisian sensibilities («bourgeois» or, at wildest, «bourgeois bohemian») and the riddle of his fascination with the charismatic «barbarian» Limonov. At times, fascination turns into hatred. Limonov «sees himself as a hero», Carrère writes, but he could equally be called a «scumbag».
Carrère first met Limonov in the early 1980s. «This sexy, sly, funny guy», the darling of Parisian literary circles, was the antithesis of the Russian émigré figures he knew: grave bearded dissidents who lived in small apartments cluttered with books and icons, and talked all night «about how Orthodoxy would save the world». Limonov's life was full of «violence and rage», drunken benders, transgressive sex and «extremist» political gestures. What does this «romantic, dangerous life» say, Carrère asks, «not just about him, Limonov, not just about Russia, but about everything that's happened since the end of the Second World War»? And what does it reveal about Putin, «Edward's double», as Carrère calls him in a discerning passage at the end of the book?
Carrère's mother, an intriguing presence in his narrative, is the eminent historian Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, permanent secretary of the Académie française. Her scholarship has focused on aspects of Russian national identity that preoccupy Limonov: among them, the importance of Central Asia in the history of Russian imperial power and the idea of a Eurasian empire. It is in Central Asia that Limonov feels his best, he tells Carrère on the last page of the book. He imagines himself living out his old age as one of the toothless beggars in the shadow of a mosque in some «dusty, slow, violent» city like Samarkand or Bukhara. «He'd be fine with that», Carrère concludes.
«Literary Review», №425, october 2014