If Eduard Limonov, the subject of Emmanuel Carrère’s utterly engrossing biographical ‘novel’, hadn’t invented himself, Carrère would have had to invent him. This is not to say that Limonov, one of the most colourful and controversial characters to have emerged on the Russian literary and political landscapes in the last half century, is a liar. Quite the contrary. At any given moment — be he an adolescent hoodlum in the industrial Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in the 1950s and 1960s, a promising poet in Moscow in the relatively peaceful but stultifying Brezhnev years, a resentful down-and-out-émigré memoirist in punk-era New York, a mercenary with the Serbs at Sarajevo in the ugliest moments of the Yugoslav wars, or the leader of a pseudo-fascist political party of ‘National Bolsheviks’, hell-bent on restoring Russia’s former glory and willing to serve a stint in prison to prove his resolve — Limonov is fiercely committed to his role, inhabiting it completely.
But it is very much a role, and one he had selected before he had a name for it, when he was still a young scrapper named Eduard Savenko, son of a middling KGB colonel, deciding between a life of crime and one of poetry. As Carrère reports, one of the pivotal moments in his subject’s life occurred at a salon for the underground poets and artists of Kharkiv, hosted by Limonov’s soon-to-be common-law wife, Anna Rubinstein:
One night, the little group assembled at Anna’s place to play at renaming themselves. Eduard Savenko [becomes] Ed Limonov, a tribute to his bellicose humour, because limon means ‘lemon’, and limonka is slang for a kind of hand grenade. While the others will drop those pseudonyms, he’ll keep his. Even his name he wants to owe to no one but himself.
From that point on, Limonov was to be Savenko’s nom de plume and nom de guerre; there was no looking back. There was no more Savenko.
This moment may hold a key to much that is seemingly inexplicable in Limonov’s career — much that may strike the western eye as a blatant contradiction. Take the rabid nationalist’s philo-Semitism:
There are a lot of things you can hold against Eduard, but not anti-Semitism. It has nothing to do with his moral elevation, nor with his historical consciousness — like most Russians who perpetuate the memory of their 20 million war dead, he couldn’t care less about the Shoah — but with a sort of snobbery. For him the fact that your average Russian — and even more your average Ukrainian — is an anti-Semite is the best reason not to be one yourself. Looking askance at Jews is something for blinkered, dull-witted rednecks, something for a Savenko.
There are indeed a lot of things one can hold against Eduard: he is, in all likelihood, a war criminal, and is currently doing his — thankfully inadequate — best to foment further destabilisation in the east of Ukraine. He is a narcissist, perhaps a genuine psychopath. But this intrepid adventurer, this self-invented man of action, this writer of stirring, provocative, hilarious and often heartbreaking autobiographical ‘novels’, is also a representative figure (dare I say hero?) of our time.
He is an unreconstructed romantic, embodying the best and, largely, the worst ideals associated with the type. No wonder he fascinates Carrère, who is, for all his talent and achievement, an essentially average man, a bourgeois. Carrère toys with right-wing ideology in youth: Limonov leads a nationalist party. Carrère sets off for Java with his ravishing girlfriend in order to avoid military service, and returns to Paris alone, with a bad novel and two crates of unsellable bathing suits; Limonov sets off for New York from the Soviet Union, knowing he can never return, loses the woman of his dreams, roams the streets, takes on odd and demeaning jobs, makes love to a black man at a playground, and pursues fame as a writer without ever wavering, until he finally makes it. Carrère spends a year writing a book about Werner Herzog, has the subject call it ‘bullshit’ to his face, and continues to interview the man, swallowing his pride and masking his devastation; Limonov never misses an opportunity to bite at the heels of better-regarded poets and authors, like Brodsky and Solzhenitsyn, and punches a British writer in the face for defaming the Soviet Union.
Limonov has lived a life so thoroughly informed by romantic ideals that it verges on a parody of those ideals, and Carrère — weaned, like Savenko, on Dumas’s Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo — explores its allure, its bathos, and its frightening consequences.
And this, in turn, allows Carrère to explore something even more consequential: the resonance, though far from perfect harmony, between Limonov’s peculiar ideology and that of the current Russian administration, as well as his intuitive, deeply felt sense of what has motivated Russia’s retreat from the West, of the spirit of resentment and revanchism that determines the nation’s stance in the world.
Those interested in understanding the forces at play in Putin’s Russia and on its periphery can learn a lot from Carrère’s insightful reflections on Limonov’s unlikely but (mostly) true story.