1992. The siege of Sarajevo. Paweł Pawlikowski, a Polish-born British filmmaker, is making a documentary about the Serbs. The rhetoric in London and Paris about the Bosnian War is ringing with references to the Nazis and echoes of the Holocaust. These are strong terms that should never be thrown around lightly, but already there are reports of ethnic cleansing, of concentration camps and mass murder. There are countless journalists already embedded in the besieged city, documenting the horrors suffered by the Bosniaks and other civilians, so Pawlikowski decides to follow the other side. He wants to know what they think about the war.
He films musicians playing the hurdy-gurdy, singing ancient songs of fighting and conquest, and children reciting playground chants while holding Kalashnikovs. He films the war council pushing weaponry and populations around on maps. He films Pale, the ski resort built for the Sarajevo Olympics in 1980 turned into the capital of the «Bosnian Serb Republic», and it is here that he is approached at lunchtime in the officers» mess by a Russian writer in a People’s Army overcoat with a pistol at his side, worn «the way tourists in Tahiti wear the flower garlands offered as a token of welcome when they get off the plane».
The Russian is apparently friends with a «particularly off-putting» group of Chetniks but is also clearly not one of them. He brags to the other journalists about his affinity for the planet’s hot-spots and compares himself to Bernard Henri-Levy, only, not on the same side. The other journalists take the measure of him and come up disgusted. Journalists don’t carry guns. They don’t so pointedly take sides.
This Russian, seeing that his bid to impress has gone wrong, coolly informs them, «I could gun you all down… my friends [the Chetniks] wouldn’t be too thrilled, but I think they’d cover for me. Let me just say that I’m not a journalist. I’m a soldier. A group of Muslim intellectuals is brutally pursuing their dream of setting up a Muslim state here, and the Serbs don’t want that. I’m on the Serbs» side and you can go to hell with your neutrality, which is nothing but cowardice. Enjoy your meal».
As he turns on his heel, leaving behind him a heavy silence, Pawlikowski’s soundman realises he knows him. He has read one of his books. He thought it was terrific. He explains to the rest of the group that it was about «his years living hand to mouth in New York and how he got screwed by black guys». Pawlikowski bursts out laughing. «Screwed by black guys?» he asks. «Do you think his Chetnik buddies know about that?»
This Russian is Eduard Limonov. He is the hero of this book.
* * *
Emmanuel Carrère’s «novel» on Limonov is based on fact and is, as far as its author is concerned, the truth, although it is published in the UK and France as fiction. This point remains largely unaddressed throughout the text and we are repeatedly reassured that the sources are trustworthy, but as the narrative progresses it becomes clear that we are being guided through a story that never fully emerges from a kind of factual grey area.
We can be certain, though, that Eduard Limonov is a real man. Two minutes of internet browsing can throw up news stories of his exploits as an activist, his complicated political stance as a nazbol — a «National Bolshevik» who expresses admiration for both Stalin and the Nazis — and his time spent in prison on terror charges. His books are both real and highly regarded. They too are published as novels but purport to be faithful accounts of the author’s own exploits, tapping into a vein of autobiographical fiction that runs from Anaïs Nin and Jack Kerouac to the transgressive confessions of Charles Bukowski.
By the time Pawlikowski finds Limonov in the midst of the Bosnian War, we have already followed him through nearly fifty years of his life thanks to Carrère’s close readings and reproductions of the stories which made up the writer’s body of work to that point. We have read about his childhood in Ukraine in which he strove to become a gangster, then his life as a poet when he realised that the only criminal position worth holding is that of a gang-leader. We have read about his time in New York spent running himself into madness and the gutter before rehabilitating into a sort of literary conman. We have moved with him to Paris where he befriends the young journalist Emmanuel Carrère, who becomes entranced with this exotic Johnny Rotten-type figure with a beautiful girlfriend and vicious hatred of post-Soviet Russia.
As readers we already feel that we very much have the measure of the man at this point, even if what we have seen can be characterised by unpredictability and disturbing volatility. We have been following him intimately and, thanks to Carrère’s choice of source material, we feel that we know something of how his mind works. In fact, the encounter in Pale is one of the first instances in which it becomes clear that Carrère is using a source other than Limonov’s own writing — or the author’s own youthful experiences — to form the narrative. This is one of the first times that we are seeing Limonov’s actions from an objective perspective and the results are so shocking to the author that they almost halt the writing of the book in its tracks.
* * *
In a conflict as brutal as the Bosnian War it is both foolish and irresponsible to choose one side as «good» and one as «bad». There were terrible atrocities committed by many factions, the culpability for which seems to run high in every camp. However, history has so far cast the Serbs as the villains of this piece, and it is characters like Dr Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić that exemplify why this is so.
Karadžić, who was then President of the Republika Srpska, and Mladić, the military leader of the same, both stand accused of war crimes and have both, in their time, been referred to by the name «Butcher of Bosnia». Pawlikowski’s film Serbian Epics relies on one-on-one interviews with men of their kind in order to fully explore the Serbian thinking behind the war.
When the director had his encounter with the «Russian asshole» in the officers» mess, he hit upon an idea. He would have Limonov, the famous writer, interview Karadžić. The scene, which forms part of the finished BBC film, takes place on the «heights from which the Serb batteries bombard Sarajevo». We see a busy, almost workaday siege encampment. It is likely that the mortar fire in the background is resulting in injury or death nearby, but the two men talk amidst it.
«Karadžić cuts an imposing figure», writes Carrère, «and I regret to say that Limonov, puny in comparison in his little black leather jacket, seems like a pallid, two-bit thug trying to impress the godfather». The author is almost apologetic here. Understandably so. His old friend, the book’s nominal hero, is immortalised on film, already fallen from grace and making himself look more pathetic with each moment. Things, however, get worse.
Karadžić explains that the Serbs are not the aggressors in this situation. Limonov nods sympathetically. He tells him that they are just retaking what is rightfully theirs. Carrère writes:
With a sincerity that I don’t doubt in the least but that doesn’t stop him from looking like a brownnoser, Limonov answers that, on behalf of his Russian compatriots and all the free men of the world, he admires the heroism of the Serbs in gallantly standing up to the fifteen countries all in league against them.
The scene cuts as Karadžić is called away to a phonecall, apparently from his wife. As he speaks, Limonov approaches a soldier who is greasing a machine gun. The soldier, having been told that this Russian writer is «very, very famous», seems keen to impress and shows Limonov how to hold the weapon, how to aim it. «Finally, like a child encouraged by the adults‘ laughter […] he abandons all his inhibitions and empties a magazine in the direction of the besieged city».
Upon viewing this for the first time, years later, Carrère says that it chilled him so much that he stopped working on the book for over a year. He is careful to explain, however, that what really bothered him was not the image of his «hero» committing a crime (he points out that, upon closer inspection, the gun does not appear to be within firing range of the city) but the fact that it makes him look ridiculous. «A little boy playing the tough guy at the amusement park».
Or a writer playing at being a journalist playing at being a soldier.
* * *
Carrère does use the word «hero» to describe Limonov. In fact, he uses it on so many occasions that its appearance will no doubt prick the sensibilities of plenty of readers, but its use is carefully chosen. It is a word that holds a certain potency in this book, especially for the «hero» himself, and the author is pointed about using it while discussing this incident at the Siege of Sarajevo. He refers to «my hero» at the precise moment he is depicting Limonov’s most ridiculous, worthless act and, in doing so, manages to both strike-upon and undermine his most defining characteristic.
Eduard Limonov is obsessed with heroes and is terrified that he will not become one. He looks at men like Stalin, Hitler, Charles Manson and Karadžić and sees only that they answered to nobody. To be anything less than a leader, in Limonov’s eyes, is to be absolutely nothing at all.
Looking back at his mother and father, it is not difficult to see where such a philosophy might have taken root. Eduard’s father, Venyamin Savenko (Limonov is a nom-de-guerre, conjuring in Russian an image of a sort of bitter hand-grenade), spent the Second World War as a simple NKVD orderly tasked with guarding a factory. His wife Raya was disgusted by the fact that he never joined the fighting the way her brother did and made sure to embarrass him about it often in front of their son. He gained a promotion to officer — a position of class and distinction which Raya enjoyed just as much as Venyamin — but was soon ushered out of a role he enjoyed to make room for one Captain Levitin. Levitin probably never knew that he made lifelong enemies of the Savenkos in taking that job, but he probably also never realised that he gained the respect of their son Eduard, who suddenly decided that the captain was a better man than his father.
If he learned derision for the second-best from the way his mother treated his father, he must also have learned to feel disgust for any weakness from the way she treated her son. She sided against him with bullies, admonished him for allowing himself to be picked upon or beaten in a fight, and praised those who taught him a lesson. In his own writing he recalls being around five years old and having an ear infection so serious that it caused him to go deaf for several weeks. His mother took him to a doctor, pus dripping from his ear, and, as they began to cross some railway tracks, he felt certain that she was planning to throw him under the oncoming train. He insists that it was only his begging that saved him from this fate.
The problem with claims such as these is that they are completely unverifiable. Again, almost all of the first two thirds of this book is based on Limonov’s own autobiographical fiction alone. Carrère repeatedly insists that he trusts his honesty; that this virtue is in such over-abundance with Limonov that it verges on becoming a flaw; that, if he does tell a lie, it is because he is already lying to himself. The frank and essentially criminal nature of some of his claims would suggest that he is indeed committed to honesty to the point at which it becomes detrimental to even himself. But we also must remember that this is a man who values glory and infamy in equal measure, and one who seems to favour the infamous as a quicker means. Those who achieve glory can easily be knocked from their pedestals, while the infamous can take comfort in their failures by reminding themselves that the odds were stacked against them anyway, and that they had less to lose.
Whether the promise of notoriety stoked a fictional bravado in his writing, or if he really is honest to the point of incriminating himself, his confessions amount to a disturbing, and often disgusting story. In his teenage years he flitted between being a pseudo-gangster and petty thug, and a talented and promising young poet. He hoped to impress a girl called Sveta — his girlfriend, of sorts — at a poetry reading in which he won the grand prize (a box of dominoes). Instead he discovered that she shunned the reading for the attentions of Shurik, «an eighteen-year-old dimwit with a scrawny moustache».
So, instead of winning the heart of Sveta that evening, young Eduard falls in with Tuzik, a local gang leader whom he both fears and respects in thrilling measures. As they prowl the town, with Eduard acting as part-mascot, part-whipping boy, the gang comes across three people in the street unable to get away in time. They are one boy and two girls. As the guy tries to joke with Tuzik, he earns himself a punch in the gut while the other gang members pounce on the two girls.
It looks like it’s going to be rape. It is rape. They strip one of them naked. She’s fat with whitish skin, no doubt a factory girl from Saltov. The guys take turns sticking their fingers in her pussy. Eduard does the same, it’s cold and wet, and when he takes his fingers out there’s blood on them. That sobers him up in a flash, and the excitement wanes.
If there’s any redemption here it’s that Limonov quickly makes his escape before the gang involved him further in the rape. But if that is redemption at all — and I really don’t think it is — it is soon destroyed anew when he goes looking for Sveta, a knife in his pocket, ready to «fuck or kill». Luckily she is not home and by the time she returns he has cooled down enough to entice her into awkwardly and quickly taking his virginity.
Even so, the realisation he makes that evening is a disturbing one: «People are there to be killed», he decides, «and that’s just what I’m going to do when I’m older».
* * *
Despite what we have seen at Sarajevo, and his assertion about what he will do when he is older, we do not know for sure if Eduard Limonov has ever killed anybody. Carrère believes that he has, again in Bosnia, but when he asked Limonov directly he was vague.
«I’ve shot, often. I’ve seen men fall. Did I hit them? Hard to say».
If he has not, Carrère believes it was probably not for want of trying. He says that Limonov’s philosophy would hold killing somebody as something that a man should try at least once. It is true that he seems to have chosen to go to war purely for the experience of being at war. In his own writing he describes the night before he went off to join the fighting and says that he was so excited that he could not sleep. The idea might seem childish if it wasn’t so dangerous.
If he did approach the act of killing in the war with the philosophical manner which Carrère suspects, it might have affected him in ways that he did not expect. Murderous urges, and even attempts, rise up in his writings on numerous occasions. Years after his encounter with Sveta, we read about him peering out of the top window of his boss’s house in New York with a rifle. He is a butler to a wealthy businessman, and much trusted and accepted in the household. His target, by an apparent quirk of fate, is his neighbour’s party-guest, UN secretary-general, Kurt Waldheim. He figures that an easy squeeze on the trigger could make him infamous overnight.
At a later date we read about him trying to strangle his girlfriend to death. At some point both she and he give up the struggle, and she survives. He is as apparently honest and open about these criminal experiences as Carrère assures us he is bound to be. Which is why it seems strange that he is so vague about his experiences in the war. While he loved to boast before, he is almost flippant, or even dismissive, about his time with the Serbs. Carrère imagines that he is wary of enraging the book’s liberal, French readership. But this kind of thing does not seem like something by which Limonov would normally be bothered. Maybe being interviewed by Carrère put him on an unsure footing, or it’s possible that his experience of actually killing somebody was more traumatic than he expected.
* * *
While his determination to be remembered and horror of remaining mediocre have driven Limonov’s life into bizarre and dangerous places, his relationship to women has been a strong and often destructive catalyst. I would guess that both stem from his mother and father, but it would take somebody with a much greater familiarity with Freud to confirm if this is a fair judgement. It does not, however, take a psychoanalyst or relationship counsellor to see that his attitude to the opposite sex is unhealthy to the point where it becomes dangerous.
By his own admission, he is happy to use women to further himself. He uses his first lover, Anna, and the bookshop she owns, to better his status in the local poetry scene, while in New York he moves in with Jenny in order to take advantage of her position as a housekeeper and make the most of her mostly absent boss’s house. This, incidentally, is when he becomes a butler and toys with the idea of assassinating the UN secretary-general. He keeps a string of wealthy, high-society lovers in Paris before settling down there with his beloved Natasha and relocating to Moscow.
It is true that Limonov seems to feel happy using both men and women alike — he even had sexual encounters with men in New York which probably appeared more shocking to readers in the 1980s than they do now — but there is something all the more sinister about the way in which he treats women. He fawns over them, yet hurts them. He totally devotes himself to them, yet uses them. He becomes so attached to them that he almost destroys himself, yet he also physically attacks them, and grades them on a scale of physical beauty from A-F.
His break-up with his first great love, Tanya, shortly after they move together to New York, sends him into something akin to a nervous breakdown. He becomes almost a ghost of himself haunting the streets of New York, drinking himself into ill health and almost accepting that his life has been for nothing. Years later, his break-up with Natasha has a similar effect and his mental health deteriorates to the point at which he apparently hallucinates a meeting with the devil. Of course, he places the blame for these failed relationships firmly at the feet of the two women. Tanya, he paints as a whore; Natasha as an alcoholic, a drug addict, and also a whore. Given the source material, it is doubtful as to whether we are really getting the full picture.
As Limonov’s story continues, we see him have encounters and relationships with younger girls, verging on children. The implications become darker and the hero of this book begins to look even more pathetic. He sees himself almost as a rock-star figure, surrounding himself with young nazbols and finding younger and more beautiful girlfriends as he continues to age.
His love affairs come across as great, epic romances, and this is no doubt his own perception of them. Before too long, however, their details become tiresome. This is not the fault of Carrère, who is a great storyteller and an excellent writer, but due to the fact that Limonov’s behaviour towards the women in his life tends to be as predictable as the rest of his actions are unpredictable. His sexual encounters are made part of his own heroic narrative by his descriptions in his autobiographical fiction. At one point he describes having anal sex with Tanya while he watches Alexander Solzhenitsyn on TV, «under the bearded prophet’s nose as he harangued the West for its decadence». (Solzhenitsyn, by the way, was unknowingly a kind of nemesis to Limonov — Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Putin are others — and the Nobel laureate’s path in and out of exile matches his own almost exactly.)
As his story winds on though, Carrère himself seems to tire of giving time to Limonov’s love life. There are more girlfriends, partners and a wife, but we learn less about them and are left to wonder if this is due to Limonov neglecting to write about them or Carrère feeling jaded by the same pattern repeating again.
* * *
His position of influence over a group of young activists — the nazbols — bestows a new relevance and a sense of counter-cultural cool upon Limonov in certain, impressionable circles, and he seems to make the most of it by keeping young girls and women on his arm and young men ready to take up arms to further his cause. If these girls and boys start to blur a little though, they are not alone. Limonov himself seems to fall into the shadow of his own myth at certain points, and is dwarfed a little by the presence of the political movement he is instrumental in creating.
This is no bad thing. Looking at Limonov’s political life gives this book some space to breath, and when it does catch its breath it starts to run into some fascinating places. There are a few instances through the text in which we get the feeling that Carrère is almost losing his grasp on the character. He writes things like «that’s not what I wanted to say» that give us the impression that Limonov is too big and unwieldy even for his own story. It takes something major to eclipse such a large character, and the first chance we get to see beyond him properly is Perestroika and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
Limonov becomes a very different book at this point, and Carrère shows himself to be a very engaging social and political writer. By taking us further into the story of modern Russia he sheds light on how belief-systems such as Limonov’s — with his love for dictatorship — can take seed. He also explains how other people just like Limonov managed to make such powerful changes on the national and international stage. Manipulators and iconoclasts. Men who know how to use people and just when to cut them loose. These are people like Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Or men like Vladimir Putin. Eduard Limonov hates them all. They are like him in many ways, and Putin in particular embodies the kind of iron-willed leader which the nazbol philosophy should glorify, but as Carrère points out: «Eduard doesn’t like cults dedicated to anyone but himself. He thinks the admiration paid to them is stolen from him».
Carrère’s explanations about the origins of the current Russian political and economic climates are really what make this book excellent. He tells us about the «shock tactics» used to jumpstart the economy in the early days of Capitalism, and how these were quickly manipulated by the new Oligarchy, leaving a huge disparity between the rich and poor. This is the very reason, as he sees it, that young, disillusioned men and women are drawn toward the kind of strong leadership that would promise to restore a level playing field. The National Bolshevik party (now disbanded) are painted in this book to be surprisingly liberal and left-leaning, although, as the author points out, the boundaries between left and right are very different in Russia from what we know in the West.
With this in mind, the author makes it his business to meet a few nazbol activists. Some act as bodyguards for Limonov while others hold down normal, often well-positioned jobs throughout society. Carrère seems to like all of them. He sees a goodness in them, and an honesty to their cause which he seems to find difficult to dismiss. They explain their memories of first encountering Limonov in the pages of his Limonka magazine (both Limonka and Limonov are puns on the Russian words for «hand-grenade» and «lemon’) and how it provided the only outlet they had for their frustrations. He sees in their dedication echoes of the punk movements which swept up the young and dispossessed of the West decades earlier. They may invoke the strength of a leader like Hitler, but both Carrère and Limonov are careful to point out that the nazbols take steps to distance themselves from any forms of anti-semitism or racial politics. Even so, despite the author’s implications that these aren’t the kind of monsters we might imagine upon hearing their party’s name, most readers — myself included — will have a hard time swallowing their use of such shocking references as Hitler, Stalin and the GULAG.
Despite this, it might seem as though Carrère is determined to like all of the characters he encounters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, although it sometimes leaves the reader feeling that he might be letting Limonov too lightly. However, his endeavour to find the humanity in everyone provides his text with a wonderful depth, and raises many more interesting questions than straightforward answers. He is keen for the reader to see every side and to dispel notions of hero or villain. This approach not only makes the book compelling to read, it robs its great hero/anti-hero of his desire to be seen as one of those great extremes. It also lets us see his followers in the wider context of their place in society, and as a natural product of that society.
Most readers will find it uncomfortable to realise that the narrative of this book is able to guide them, on more than a few occasions, into siding with self-identifying fascists. I certainly do not ever expect to find an affinity with those who openly use Nazi imagery, but it says a lot about Carrère’s capability as a writer that he is able to make a character like Limonov appealing to his readers just as often as he appears disgusting. But, as the author points out, feeling such disgust toward another person is inherently questionable in itself.
Carrère describes a rather crushing encounter he had as a young writer with Werner Herzog, about whom he had just written a book. Herzog agreed to an interview but was sure to point out to Carrère that his book was obviously «bullshit». Reflecting upon the notion that the director felt justified in completely dismantling the confidence of a young film buff, he talks about how the idea of fascism is rooted in all of us. The concept of a hierarchy, whether it be social, ethnic or even just moral, is what drives the basic principles of fascist thought, in his view, yet few people would have any problems with ranking Gandhi above the paedophile and murderer John Wayne Gacy in terms of human worth. He invokes a Buddhist sutra to counter what he believes to be an almost all-pervading fallacy, and at once pits his moral and political position against Limonov’s, but also justifies his use of him as a hero. «A man who judges himself superior, inferior, or even equal to another does not understand reality».
The attempt to fully understand this idea, he says, is his reason for writing this book.
* * *
I always maintain that the great test of any book, fiction or otherwise, is its enticement to the reader to read more. More by the same author, yes, but also more around the themes and topics that it introduces. Until I picked up Limonov my readings of Russian literature was limited to little more than the classics of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Zamyatin and a few others. As for modern Russian themes, I was only really familiar with what I’d read in Solzhenitsyn, David Remnick, Anne Applebaum and Robert Gellately.
In the short time since reading Carrère’s book however, I have already picked up books by Orlando Figes, Robert Service, Ben Judah and Conor O’Clery on Soviet history and contemporary Russian politics. I have bought works by Venedikt Erofeev and Joseph Brodsky which I hope to give me a little bit more of a grasp on post-modern Russian fiction and poetry, although I am aware that these cannot even represent the tip of the iceberg.
Reading about Limonov dabbling in Chechen militancy and his hopes to destabilise the Baltic States made me realise how little I know about the tumultuous recent political histories of those regions, while Carrère’s descriptions of Eduard’s experiences with transcendental meditation, and sudden and unexpected attainment of nirvana, has stirred in me a kind of secular interest in Zen mythology.
Regardless of your position on Limonov as a person, or of his controversial — and often flimsy — politics, it is hard to deny that he has led a fascinating life. He possesses the kind of tireless thirst for adventure that seems rare these days, and is more familiar to us through the works of Alexander Dumas, an author of whom both Carrère and Limonov share a love. It isn’t hard to see why Carrère found so much to write about with this character, and it is an added gift that most of Limonov’s own writings are available in English (although only still in print in the US market).
However, as fascinating as he is, and as enticing as it may be to start reading his own writings, I feel that it will be some time before I am ready to revisit Eduard Limonov. It is true that you can have too much of a good thing, but Limonov is not what I would necessarily even call a good thing. He is a large, potent character, as capable of charm as he is of infuriating a reader. He represents a much misunderstood section of Russian society as well as mounting a complex and rare position on Human thought and expression, but as interesting as that might make him, it still does not mean that his ethics are always justifiable. In an odd way, the compulsion to delve into the thoughts of Eduard Limonov is similar to that which makes us read the furious comments on an online news article or follow the rantings of a Twitter troll. We certainly stand to learn something by looking at how angry, dispossessed people’s minds might work, but it is too easy to get sucked into the argument. Sometimes it is best to just take a deep breath and walk away.
«The Bear», 12 march 2015