Biography review: Rediscover a Russian swashbuckler in «Limonov» by Emmanuel Carrère
Biography review: Rediscover a Russian swashbuckler in «Limonov» by Emmanuel Carrère.
In 1974, poet and dandy Edward Limonov left the Soviet Union to live in the United States. The bisexual, bespectacled son of a secret policeman was fond of the Ramones, fascinated by revolutionary violence, and, in his own words, a Russian punk — the antithesis of the bearded sage Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who went into exile at the same time.
This punk wrote some scandalous memoirs and became a literary celebrity in France. Then Limonov’s life changed direction radically: After fighting for the Serb side in Bosnia in the early 1990s, he returned to Russia, where he formed the neofascist National Bolshevik party, acting as a creepy, silver-haired Pied Piper figure to gangs of alienated youths. Led by Limonov, these «Natsbols» marched through Russian cities chanting «Stalin, Beria, Gulag!» while waving a flag identical to that of the Nazis — only the swastika had been swapped for a black hammer and sickle.
Limonov’s literary friends were horrified, and his books went out of print in the West. So the French author Emmanuel Carrère was naturally quite astonished when he visited Moscow in 2007 and discovered that Limonov had become a highly respected politician who, alongside chess maestro Garry Kasparov, was one of the leaders of the anti-Putin opposition movement.
Limonov had even managed to spend a couple of years in Vladimir Putin’s prisons, where he had written some new books, one of which, The Book of Water, had (deservedly, in my opinion) won much acclaim and a prestigious literary prize.
That is a brief account of the career of Limonov the man. Meanwhile Limonov the book, which has just been published in English translation, is an attempt by Carrère to come to terms with the meaning of this «romantic, dangerous life», which he states «says something. Not just about him, Limonov, not just about Russia, but about everything that’s happened since the end of the Second World War».
Limonov is not a standard biography but rather what Carrère calls a «nonfiction novel». Rather than track down Limonov’s friends and relatives to find out what the author «really said», Carrère relies instead on the version of his life as Limonov has told it in his memoirs, mixing in stories from Carrère’s own life, historical observations and cultural critiques.
The result is a fascinating hybrid of confession, analysis and even page-turner as Carrère follows Limonov from the suburbs of Kharkov in Soviet Ukraine, to the demimonde of the Moscow artistic underground, to New York welfare hotels, war, imprisonment and his late-career resurrection.
By tracing that wild trajectory, Carrère obliterates the usual dreary paradigms through which Westerners perceive Russia. Limonov as he reveals himself in his own books, and as Carrère reveals him here, is a man who has willed himself to crash through historical and cultural barriers, reinventing himself multiple times in pursuit of his vision of personal glory. Limonov can be hateful, yet he can also inspire great loyalty; he is without pity, yet capable of profound love; he is a despicable narcissist, yet indisputably fearless and able to inspire courage in others.
Confronted by this confounding figure, Carrère remains ambivalent, admitting that at one point he was so disturbed by Limonov’s capacity for vileness that he stopped work on the book for a year. Toward the end, however, Carrère gives us an almost sympathetic portrait of his hero’s prison years as the best of his life — the moment he was able to test his own heroism and emerge victorious.
After that, however, it’s all downhill. Finally respectable, Limonov marries a beautiful Russian actress and rails against Putin, but the actress abandons him, and at the end of the book Limonov is old, marginalized and seemingly disenchanted by his own life.
Perhaps Carrère’s Limonov does indeed say something about «everything that’s happened since the end of the Second World War», but it is something so complex that it cannot be reduced to any pat lesson.
There is no moral here; after all, Limonov himself, as the book makes quite clear, is not very interested in morality.
«The Dallas Morning News», 5 december 2014