Fiction Chronicle: A Hero for Our Time
The «Johnny Rotten of literature» morphs into a Russian ultra-nationalist hoping to overthrow Yeltsin.
Sometime in the early 1980s, Emmanuel Carrère came across a memoir by the Russian writer and political agitator Eduard Limonov. The book, about the author’s exploits as a penniless bohemian on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, carried the suggestive title «The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks». It had been a gift to Mr. Carrère’s mother, a celebrated French historian, and it bore the author’s inscription: «from the Johnny Rotten of literature».
Carrère mère dismissed the book out of hand («boring and pornographic», she pronounced it), but her son, an aspiring writer himself—and today one of France’s most acclaimed authors—was more impressionable. He was struck by the crude energy of the writing, with its graphically itemized sexual escapades involving both women and men and its sneering, punk-rock mannerisms. As the decades passed, he kept stumbling across Mr. Limonov’s name. The Russian was internationally denounced for fighting with the Serbian paramilitary during the Bosnian War. Back home, he founded a neo-fascist political party, was thrown into prison by Vladimir Putin and, once released, assumed the mantle of a pro-democracy dissident.
With «Limonov» (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 340 pages, $30), Mr. Carrère attempts to make some kind of sense of this improbable curriculum vitae. His addictively interesting narrative (nimbly translated by John Lambert) goes back to Mr. Limonov’s youth in postwar Ukraine, where he cultivated his «writer-hoodlum» guise—part vagabond-poet, part two-bit thug who carried «a switchblade in his pocket with a blade longer than his palm is wide». From Kharkov, he migrates to Moscow’s literary underground and then, in 1974, procures an exit visa and moves to New York.
This was not political exile, as such emigration was for Mr. Limonov’s more talented and better known literary rivals Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Joseph Brodsky. Mr. Carrère argues that, following the pattern that would define his life, Mr. Limonov was motivated by nothing more than a thirst for adventure and an opportunistic pursuit of fame: «The only life worthy of him is the life of the hero; he wants the whole world to admire him». When he instead hits the skids in New York, living in flophouses and eventually taking work as a butler on Long Island, he converts the experience into the chronicles of noble squalor and social rebellion that make him a cult figure for «all the hate-filled losers on the planet».
Mr. Limonov calls his books fictional memoirs. Similarly, Mr. Carrère’s work is a fictional biography (or, as the author prefers to think of it, a nonfiction novel). Though grounded in reportage, «Limonov» embellishes scenes and projects itself into the thoughts of real figures in ways impermissible in straight nonfiction. Mr. Carrère’s trademark is his use of the first-person singular; he frequently inserts autobiographical accounts of his family life, his writing career or his spiritual leanings into the narrative, even when they have only minimal connection to the story. Yet the storytelling in «Limonov» is fast-paced and full of zest, consciously modeled on the swashbuckling novels of Dumas that both Messrs. Limonov and Carrère hungrily read as a child.
The book grows in both excitement and absurdity as it charts Mr. Limonov’s return to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and his bizarre transformation into an ultranationalist. His National Bolshevik Party makes bedfellows of anti-Semitic extremists, counterculture artists and other social misfits, and, for a time during Boris Yeltsin’s incompetent presidency, Mr. Limonov believes he can seize power. Mr. Carrère presents him as a kind of farcical exemplum of a new Russia run by drunks and gangsters—except that he loses out again, this time to Vladimir Putin, who trumps him in brutality and demagoguery just as Brodsky once one-upped him in literary renown. Even when it comes to immoral self-interest, Mr. Limonov is second-best, a failure and a loser. In other words, Mr. Carrère suggests, a hero of our time.
The first line of Israeli writer Assaf Gavron’s «The Hilltop» (Scribner, 448 pages, $26) is biblical: «In the beginning were the fields». And on those fields, situated on a picturesque height somewhere in the West Bank, a former bookkeeper named Othniel Assis establishes a small farm. And, lo, soon other Jews come to reside there, and it expands into an unofficial settlement of trailer homes: «Some were lovers of the Land of Israel; others were lovers of serenity and nature; still others, lovers of low costs». Zionist organizations donate power generators. Soldiers are sent to stand guard. Thus is the illegal outpost Ma’aleh Hermesh C. created.
But even though Mr. Gavron frames the resulting land dispute as a conflict as old as Genesis, his novel is brilliantly attuned to the madhouse complexities of the current settlement crisis. «The Hilltop» introduces an enormous cast of characters, all of whom seem to be operating at cross-purposes: left-wing protesters, muckraking journalists, wealthy American Zionists, the Palestinians in the adjacent village, foreign entrepreneurs interested in the region’s olive trees and harried government officials trying to evacuate the outpost without sparking an international incident. The parties are so numerous that they sometimes form strange alliances—when the government tries to run a wall through Ma’aleh Hermesh C. and the olive grove, Jews and Palestinians team up to stop the bulldozers.
Mr. Gavron focuses large parts of his story on two 40-something brothers, Gabi and Roni Kupper, each of whom has bottomed out and come to the settlement seeking renewal (spiritual for Gabi, economic for Roni). «The Hilltop» flashes back to their upbringing and adult troubles, but though these sections are sensitively written (and helped by Steven Cohen’s brisk, readable translation), their somber tone doesn’t match the sly satire and powder-keg tension of the scenes in the settlement. Mr. Gavron is at his best when confronting what is, in essence, an ancient contest over the ownership of lawless desert land. «That’s what’s so great about the territories», Roni says. «There are no rules, you can make them up as you go along». The superbly orchestrated chaos that results makes this an indispensable novel of, as one character dubs it, the «Wild West Bank».
«The Wall Street Journal», October 17, 2014