Limonov by Emmanuel Carrere translated by John Lambert
How a great French writer was beguiled by the staggering career of an anarchic Russian adventurer.
Hardly know in Britain, but idolized by his French readers, journalist, film-maker and novelist Emmanuel Carrere has been called by the Paris Review one of the few great writers in France today. His latest «non-fiction novel» — a form he has made his own — takes as its hero Edward Limonov, a Russian dissident who has served time in a labour camp for terrorism. Carrere's ancestors came from Russia, and he has other reasons for finding that vast, torn nation intriguing. His mother is a prominent historian of 20th-century Russia. His cousin, an investigative journalist, was gunned down by unknown killers on a Moscow street in 2004.
As wrapping for the Limonov story, Carrere supplies round-ups of Russian history from the 1940s to now, written with flashbulb panache and slapstick drollery that would captivate even if Limonov never appeared in the book at all. But for Carrere Limonov was the inspiration. When he first read about his exploits, he says, they made his own risk-free, bourgeois existence seem dull and mediocre. Writing this book seems to have given him a way of sharing his hero's adventures, as well as taking on something of his tough, anarchic stance.
Born in 1943, the son of a junior NKVD officer, Limonov was reared in Kharkov, Ukraine. Sensitive, sickly and short-sighted, he compensated by joining a gang of hoodlums and learning, he says, to drink 2 pints of vodka per hour, a talent he has never lost. This phase of his life is recorded in Memoirs of a Russian Punk, one of a string of sensational and sometimes salacious autobiographies that constitute almost his entire literary output. After a suicide attempt and a spell in a mental hospital, he moved to Moscow and earned his keep as a tailor while attracting some notice as an avant-garde poet.
His big break came in 1974 when, perhaps with KGB connivance, he escaped from Russia to America. In New York he nearly starved, but was saved by a kind multimillionaire who employed him as a butler. In return he wrote a memoir of this period which airs his envy and class-hatred, and describes his almost insuperable longing to cut his employer's throat.
The first of his memoirs to be published, «It's Me, Eddie», sparked scandalized delight among French literati, so he moved to Paris, and married a beautiful singer, who turned out, however, to be an alcoholic nymphomaniac. He had always wanted to be a soldier like his father, but had been declared unfit for military service, so when war broke out in the Balkans in the early 1990s he hurried to join the Serbian forces bombarding the Bosnians in Sarajevo. A film clip shows him firing a machine gun at the besieged city in the company of Radovan Karadzic (currently on trial at the Hague for war crimes).
The National Bolshevik Party, which he founded on his return to Moscow, adopted a Nazi flag with the hammer and sickle superimposed on it. Its heroes included Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini. Their common factor was that they were all losers, unfairly treated by fate, as Limonov feels he has been, and demonized by the lily-livered West. The NBP also ran a party newspaper which enjoyed cult status among guileless young provincials of rebellious bent, and incited them to commit acts of disobedience for which several served long prison terms. Limonov himself was lucky to get only four years (reduced to two for good behaviour) for running a terrorist training camp in Kazakhstan.
The truth of Limonov's memoirs is disputed, so the boldness and defiance Carrere admires may be fictive. However, he says in an interview that he has not bothered to check the facts — «If I am wrong I don't care». His repeated references to the Tintin books and to adventure stories like The Three Musketeers — a favourite with both him and Limonov — suggest that there may be an element of literary playfulness in his approach.
All the same it would be good to know where he stands on serious issues, and it is not always clear. When he writes that «war is a pleasure, the greatest pleasure there is», it seems obvious the opinion is Limonov's, not Carrere's, who avoided French military service by joining the Peace Corps. But when he comments about Limonov's appetite for sex with very young girls, «What can you do? That's how it is», we wonder if he really means to suspend judgement or not.
The problem is most acute in relation to democracy, human rights, and other values the West holds dear. People like Limonov, Carrere conjectures, would dismiss these as passing intellectual fashions, and would compare them to 19th century Christian colonialism, which had the same mistaken faith in its own rightness and in its duty to impose beliefs on the savages. Though he does not much like this kind of relativist argument, Carrere says, he can think of «nothing solid to counter it with». However, if that is so, the murder of his cousin, which he obviously condemns, cannot be called right or wrong, but just the effect of one intellectual fashion coming up against another.
Commendably, the book tries to understand the influences that, Carrere believes, shaped a whole generation of Russians, not just Limonov. He grew up proud to be Russian. Stalin was his idol. The Red Army had won the greatest war in history at the cost of 20m dead. The Soviet empire made the West tremble. Suddenly all that changed. Communism collapsed. Those he had been brought up to admire were, it appeared, sadists and criminals. Equating Stalin with Hitler became commonplace. Limonov, and many like him — including, perhaps, Vladimir Putin — simply cannot accept that equation.
All this is persuasive. But in the last resort I doubt whether Carrere will catch on over here. To pragmatic Brits his nonchalance about finding out the facts risks seeming shallow, and once Limonov's credibility is in doubt he looks more like a charlatan than a hero.
«The Sunday Times», 16 november 2014