Of Translation and Politics in Russian Literature
"What is the purpose of one culture translating another? One reason Slavic departments thrive during political crises would seem to be so that we can better understand the cultures of the post-Soviet East. Another reason, though, may be something more akin to the motives of the CIA in translating Doctor Zhivago."
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this essay was published without the accompanying footnotes, which the author has since added to clarify and expand upon several points raised in conversation with fellow translators and members of the literary community.
One such reader is the French filmmaker and writer Emmanuel Carrère. In the introduction to Limonov (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, translated by John Lambert), his biography of the Russian writer-politician Eduard Limonov, Carrère writes about his subject’s nostalgic rage when the Soviet Union fell: «Things began taking a turn for the bizarre with the collapse of communism. Everyone was delighted but [Limonov], and he didn’t seem to be kidding around anymore when he said Gorbachev should face a firing squad.» Limonov, like Solzhenitsyn, left the Soviet Union in 1974 and, also like Solzhenitsyn, returned twenty years later. He even spent part of his time in America. The difference between these «dissidents»—the quotation marks are for Limonov—is that Limonov’s was a self-imposed exile, and his nationalism took on an entirely different form than Solzhenitsyn’s retreat into tradition. It’s this «bizarre,» greater paradox that Carrère sets out to understand in Limonov.
Carrère’s subject may, at first glance, simply appear as a more extreme version of Solzhenitsyn. After the Soviet Union ended, Limonov, as if connected by a kind of Slavic/Orthodox Christian solidarity, joined Serb fighters in the Yugoslav Wars. The Yugoslav Wars were in a sense leftover effects of the Cold War polemic between the West and Soviet East. However, the word «Balkanization»—its root, of course, from the Balkan peninsula, where the Wars took place—illustrates the messier complexity of this conflict. In Limonov, Carrère writes about unconventional Westerners who took the side opposite that of most Westerners in this conflict, with Western governments supporting the Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks versus some post-Soviet states—such as Russia (Limonov’s side)—supporting the Orthodox Christian Serbs.3 Those unconventional Westerners, some of them French (that is, ethnically Catholic) and acquainted with Limonov, took the Orthodox Christian side here, more against Bosnian Muslims than for fellow Catholics (the Croats). In the Yugoslav Wars, Balkanization resulted in more than two sides, and the Cold War polemic became more complicated and multidimensional.
It’s at this point in Limonov where Carrère takes a risk and states that, since one must choose a side, the only universal principle is for one to choose the side that’s weaker—in this case, to call the Bosnians victims of the Serb aggressors, with whom Limonov’s allegiance lay. In his discussion of the Yugoslav Wars, Carrère states that when he later watched documentary video footage of Limonov alongside Serb fighters firing a gun over a besieged Sarajevo, he gave up on writing Limonov for over a year. Limonov’s act in Sarajevo went far beyond a call for Gorbachev to be shot. While Carrère writes that Limonov didn’t fire at anybody in particular, he could very easily have injured or even killed somebody.
This is the most insightful and important part of Limonov, since it hints that the author felt as if his description of Limonov’s life somehow made him complicit in Limonov’s moral violations. It’s here Carrère delves deepest into the problems he encounters with this biography. And because Carrère’s own conflict is so complex at this moment, this section of Limonov best examines the paradox of its subject.
But Carrère stops short. The book was published, so we know he began his project again. However, his initial reluctance to choose a side seems to have become a desire to bridge the two sides. Conflicted about whether or not to tell Limonov’s story, perhaps Carrère decided once again to choose the weaker side and to continue writing Limonov. It’s very likely nobody else would. This is what makes Limonov so important to the conversation about politics and translation: Carrère has attempted to «carry over»—translate—a Russian cultural and historical figure, Limonov, with his world-weary Russian politics and nationalism, to a Western audience, one which has a historical understanding of the political events in which Limonov took part that is very foreign to Limonov’s own.
Perhaps one can even view Limonov as an attempt at translating historiography. More than once, in parts of Limonov that precede the narrative about the Yugoslav Wars, Carrère anticipates a negative reaction on the part of his Western reader and makes attempts at arguing on Limonov’s behalf. After quoting His Butler’s Story, a memoir in which Limonov writes of refusing to feel sorry for a boy dying of cancer, Carrère comments:
What an asshole! Steven [Gray, a rich New Yorker for whom Limonov served, the subject of His Butler’s Story] thinks, and I think the same thing, and no doubt you do too, reader. But I also think that if anything could have been done to save the little boy, especially if that something was hard or dangerous, Eduard would have been the first to attempt it, and he would have given it everything he had.
But that’s not what happened and not what Limonov wrote. This defense, then, seems revealing. Is Carrère worried that the reader may give up on Limonov here or, even more likely, later, when he or she sees Limonov as a war criminal? Or does Carrère want to challenge the reader’s own moral alignment, in the same way his was challenged while writing Limonov?
The book’s negative capability—which Carrère himself must have employed in order to continue writing it, and which he must have understood the reader would need too—may explain why Limonov is referred to in marketing as a «fictional biography» or «pseudobiography» and labeled as fiction in the U.S., as well as in the U.K. and France. It’s as if the publishers of the original and its translation want to disclaim historicity. For one thing, this hybrid genre is in keeping with Limonov’s literary work. The subject of Limonov has himself written several memoirs, which he refers to as «autobiographical novels.» The term suggests exciting «stranger-than-fiction» accounts of Limonov’s rags-to-riches-to-rags writer’s life.
But Limonov is a politician too and used his memoirs, like any politician, to mythologize his personality. In 1994, he cofounded the National Bolshevik Party of Russia. Limonov bolstered his political career by helping to translate his own background into a cult of personality. But the memoirs probably also turned off some of Limonov’s nationalist compatriots. During the first stage of his self-imposed exile, when he spent 1975 – 1980 in New York City, Limonov was involved in love affairs with men. Again, similar to the issue with Solzhenitsyn’s position on Yeltsin, a Western reader may ask why shouldn’t the emigrant to New York, like so many other Russian emigrants, have been happy when the Soviet Union ended? Why is this bisexual punk toeing the nationalist line?
One characteristic that sets Limonov apart from Solzhenitsyn is his hypersexuality and homosexuality, both explicitly described in Limonov, sometimes to a fault, as if Carrère is making apology for Limonov’s objectification of his sexual partners of both sexes. The first man with whom Limonov had sex in New York was black and homeless, which Carrère highlights (perhaps as Limonov did in this particular scene of his memoirs), as if to show the tolerant and kinder side of his subject. Later in Limonov, Carrère qualifies an affair with an underage girl: «I know how violently our era condemns an older man’s fondness for young flesh. But what can you do, that’s how it is.» Carrère leaves it at that.
This comes near the end of the book, and at this point it feels as if Carrère may have suspended judgment for too long. He has come full circle from his introduction, in which he listed admirers of Limonov, a list which gives pause to the Western reader savvy about dissidents. The assassinated investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya defended the Natsbols (the dubious nickname of the National Bolsheviks) after they pulled some pranks in the presidential office. Even Yelena Bonner, the widow of the famous dissident Andrei Sakharov, has sung praises of Limonov’s party, according to Carrère.
By mentioning these admirers, Carrère is translating politics that make sense to Politkovskaya and Bonner, dissident heroines in the West. It’s as if he’s using their endorsements of Limonov as justification for his conclusion (or lack thereof) about the mystique of Limonov. Carrère seems to want to understand the way Politkovskaya and Bonner do, rather than simply dismissing Limonov, as so many Westerners might, because of his nationalism. Yet Carrère can’t escape being a Westerner, the context it forces on even the most unconventional of us. It’s this that caused the apprehensions, which make the pages of Limonov devoted to the Yugoslav Wars and Carrère’s struggles with his subject the most human and honest.
At the end, Carrère seems determined to take the middle road, as the quotation at the beginning of Limonov implies:
«Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain. Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.»
However, this quote is from Putin, who is a bit more difficult to admire than Limonov, even for somebody withholding judgment for as many pages as Carrère often does. At the end of the book, Carrère has painted Limonov as a sort of would-be Putin instead of further comparing him to Solzhenitsyn. With his attempt to understand and perhaps apologize for Limonov, Carrère runs the risk of doing the same for Putin himself, as Solzhenitsyn may have done.
And, like Putin, it’s very clear on which side Limonov locates himself. Carrère admits his subject would likely have little more than disdain for the Western audience of Limonov. Russian-language readers of Limonov’s memoirs may not view the paradox of Limonov as paradox. But one hopes that, just as he identifies the paradox of Solzhenitsyn’s lionized condemnation of the Soviet Union and subsequent praise for Putin, a reader of Limonov will identify a similar paradox and yet be able to avoid moral relativism. This «translation» may speak more about its Western author and even its Western audience than about the audience of the original Limonov memoirs it digests.
3 This breakdown is a regrettable reduction merely for the purpose of this essay, and I acknowledge there were many other peoples involved in the conflict but excluded from this explanation.
«Fiction Writers Reviews», 22. February 2016