Is Emmanuel Carrere's Limonov true, false or somewhere in between?
At one point during Limonov: A Novel, French writer Emmanuel Carrère ponders the subject of his book, «I don't think Eduard is either vile or a liar. But who's to say?» The phrase captures the spirit of uncertainty that permeates this captivating portrait of the iconoclastic literary figure Eduard Limonov.
Born in provincial Russia in 1943, Limonov has enjoyed a sordid and storied life. He's been a knife-toting hoodlum, a tailor, a punk poet living on the streets of New York and a billionaire's butler. He's the author of numerous autobiographical novels, including Diary of a Loser and It's Me Eddie, which made him a star of the Parisian literary scene.
He's also a fascist, a staunch Stalinist and the leader of a banned ultra-right wing political party that tried to bring down Vladimir Putin. In 2001 he spent almost three years in a labour camp under trumped-up charges of terrorism. He fought in the Bosnian War, alongside noted war criminals such as Radovan Karadzic. There's even a YouTube video of him firing a sniper rifle into an under-siege Sarajevo.
Eduard Limonov is, in short, a divisive figure, and Carrère revels in the ambiguous nature of his subject. In conversational, vivid prose he both derides and subscribes to the myth of Limonov, writing at one point that, «Limonov was our barbarian, our thug; we adored him», and then later that, «He sees himself as a hero; you might call him a scumbag: I suspend my judgement on the matter». If not an unreliable narrator, Carrère is certainly an undecided one when it comes to Limonov.
And like the man himself, Limonov the book defies easy categorisation. His publisher describes it as a «pseudobiography», though Carrère stated in an interview that the work was «not a biography. I never tried to do what a real biographer would do. I did not check facts, or check what he [Limonov] actually said». To make matters more unclear, it won the prestigious Prix Renadout, which is only awarded to works of fiction.
Though Carrère briefly interviewed Limonov for the book, he obtained most of his material from Limonov's own notoriously self-aggrandising autobiographical novels. Carrère also weaves scenes from his own «bourgeois bohemian» life into the narrative about the Russian writer, further blurring the boundary between fiction and fact.
The result is a fascinating hybrid of journalism and philosophy, of truth and fantasy. When the two writers finally meet at the end of the «novel», Limonov laments that he has led a «shitty life». Whatever the truth is, it certainly makes for interesting reading.
«The Sydney Morning Herald», 7 february 2015