Writer, plotter, radical
«In those days we were used to Soviet dissidents being bearded, grave, and poorly dressed, living in small apartments, filled with books and icons, where they would spend all night talking about how Orthodoxy would save the world. And here was this sexy, sly, funny guy, a cross between a sailor on leave and a rock star».
Paris, the early 1980s, and Emmanuel Carrère, son of eminent French historian Hélène Carrère d'Encausse, is pleasurably shocked by Eduard Limonov, the self-described Johnny Rotten of Soviet writing. They drink and carouse together, before losing contact. Then, in 2008, Carrère meets Limonov again in Moscow. This fast-paced, adulatory profile, newly translated by John Lambert, is the result.
At first glance, the subtitle — «a novel» — is patently untrue. Limonov is real enough. But one can see the point. Much of Carrère's information comes from Limonov's semi-fictional accounts of himself, and in a recent New York Times interview, Carrère admitted to a relaxed attitude to fact-checking: «If I am wrong, I don't care».
So who is Limonov? He is Eduard Savenko, son of a low-ranking Chekist and hard-as-nails mother, born in 1943. A quiet boy who develops into a poet, proving his manliness in fights and drinking bouts. Someone who invents another name for himself to pay «tribute to his [own] acidic and bellicose humour» («limon» is lemon in Russian). A sparsely published writer who despises Solzhenitsyn because of his fame.
Defecting to New York in 1974, Limonov is the dissident who has homosexual encounters in city parks. Who becomes a millionaire's butler before deciding to emigrate once more, arriving in Paris in 1980. Who later fights with the Serbs in Bosnia, founds the far right National Bolshevik Party on his return to Russia and befriends fellow anti-Putin voices like Gary Kasparov while writing for Playboy.
Carrère writes with a certain reverence, only sometimes becoming critical. With his eye for a colourful detail, he gives us a good read. Slowly, the impression grows that, above all, Limonov is power-hungry. He is reminiscent of the intellectual, perverse Smerdyakov from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov: driven to make his mark, always the plotting underdog, enacting the idea that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. Limonov would doubtlessly hate the observation, but he seems a very nineteenth-century sort of Russian, after all.
«The Tablet», 17 january 2015