‘…the advantage of censorship is that you can be an unpublished author without anyone suspecting you lack talent’.
Limonov is a biography that reads like a novel. Emmanuel Carrère’s first-person, biographical bestseller has been translated from the French by John Lambert and tells the remarkable adventures of Russian dissident Eduard Limonov. It is not an easily summarised tale. The book tells how Limonov has at times been – amongst other things – a valet in New York and a writer in Paris. He was a soldier in the Balkans, where he interviewed Karadzic. He’s also a poet and leader of the banned Russian political party National Bolshevik.
‘Why do you want to write a book about me?’ Limonov asked the author. Carrère – who at one point refers to Limonov as his ‘hero’ – answered that he had led a fascinating life. ‘A romantic, dangerous life, a life that dared to engage directly with history’. Limonov’s comment on this appraisal? ‘Yeah, a shitty life.’ Carrère might well be giving Limonov too much credit and admiration, but it’s this life that he spends 340 pages retelling.
Originally planning to become a butcher, Limonov grew up in the Soviet Union where bad eye sight kept him out of the army. A fight in school is portrayed as the moment when he decided he wanted to become the sort of person that other people don’t attack, because they are worried that you might kill them.
Limonov steals, fights, seduces men and women. He wants revolution, to hijack planes, ‘or bomb something.’He is frightened not by death, but by the idea of dying unknown. He wants people to read of his death and ‘think that guy must have really lived’. So he devotes his life to really living, and we hear about his successes and failures in New York, Russia, Paris and the Balkans.
Carrère brings himself into the story with varying degrees of relevancy. There’s his peace corp trip to get out of military service, a trip to Cannes to interview Werner Herzog, time spent in Romania. We hear of his university professor mother providing the link between him and Limonov, having been sent a copy of his book The Russian Poet prefers Big Blacks’, which is Carrère’s introduction to his subject. In passing Carrère also mentions another family member. His cousin Paul Klebnikov was an investigative journalist writing about economic crime in Russia. He was murdered in Moscow in 2004. This is only given a paragraph but should have been a much larger focus of Carrère’s Russian investigations.
Subjects that are given more room are eclectic, including the history of French polemical newspaper L’Idiot, Moldova and anecdotes about protection rackets in Russian clubs. There is also back-room detail about world events like the ’91 coups in Russia and the Serbian war. Anecdotes describe Russian life including the growth of Soviet bureaucracy and the need for two men to do every job. That’s one to do it, and one to make sure he does it. But then you need one to make sure he does his job. And another to make sure he does his job….ad if not infinitum then something close. They also tell of the demoralising work of Gulag prisoners – who have to empty prison yard puddles with a glass.
Virtuous qualities do not obviously shine through in Limonov’s life and the book contains lengthy descriptions of various kinds of undistinguished behaviour. The first person style gives an immediacy to the story – but also an informal lack of authority. Interesting for the glimpses of modern Russian, Croatian and other history, but it’s a book that will only really appeal to the ardent Russophile.