Eastern Promises

Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia BY Emmanuel Carrère. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 352 pages. $30.

The cover of Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia

The French writer Emmanuel Carrère wrote several novels before finding his home in the more ambiguous genre of novelistic nonfiction. His work often explores the perils of self-invention and the fraught relationship between fact and fiction. The Adversary (2000), for example, tells the story of a mediocre man who was so desperate to please that he created a fictitious life for himself. When his lies started to unravel, he killed his family so they wouldn’t be disappointed in him. Eduard Limonov, the subject of Carrère’s newly translated “pseudo-biography,” Limonov, is a different kind of fabulist: the hero of his own adventure story. As a boy, Carrère loved the novels of Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne. In Limonov, a delinquent turned underground poet turned opposition politician, he found a man who managed to make his life as exciting as d’Artagnan’s—if much more sordid.

Limonov was born in 1943 in Dzerzhinsk, Russia, and grew up in Kharkiv, in what is now Ukraine. He saw the wreckage of war, but also the glow of Soviet victory. His mother was cruel and his father was pathetic; early on, he decided that it was best to look like a person who was ready to kill. As a teenager, he fell in with a band of hooligans. They invited him to lose his virginity via gang rape, but he declined.

He read voraciously, and, like Carrère, he was fond of Dumas and Verne. When he started writing poetry, he was pleased to find that people liked it—even his hooligan friends. (In the Soviet Union, a love of crime was compatible with a love of verse.) He fell in with Kharkiv’s literary crowd. Never afraid to attract attention, he wore crushed-velvet pants and steel-tipped shoes that made sparks on the pavement. Restless and vain, he moved quickly through the layers of the Soviet underground.

Life wasn’t easy, but he didn’t blame that on the Soviet Union. He had no patience for dissidents who whined about political oppression. To him they were just weak, too stupid to work the system. Or they were hypocrites: Wasn’t revolutionary martyrdom just another way to get famous? What mattered was power, and the Soviet Union had a lot of it.

In Moscow, Limonov fell passionately in love with a beautiful young woman named Tanya. The new couple soon emigrated to New York; Tanya wanted to be a model, and Limonov wanted to be famous. They lived in a fleabag apartment until Tanya ran off with a French photographer, leaving Limonov to weep, drink, masturbate, and have sex with homeless men. (“I lay there smiling and thought about how I must have been the only Russian poet who had ever been smart enough to fuck a black man in a New York vacant lot,” the narrator remarks in It’s Me, Eddie, one of Limonov’s many “fictional memoirs.”) Eventually Limonov got a job as a rich man’s butler. He liked to take girls back to the mansion and do filthy things to them in the master’s bed; that was his version of class warfare. But his American friends were unwilling to entertain his fantasies about revolutionary terrorism, and in America, he had concluded, writers had it even worse than they did in the Soviet Union. He moved to Paris. French intellectuals were amused by his violently ironic posturing, his toasts to Stalin, and his mockery of Solzhenitsyn. He published two memoir-novels that made him a minor star.

When perestroika came, Limonov wasn’t pleased. The Soviet legend was the legend of his childhood, after all, and what replaced it was a miserable neoliberalism. Also, his fame in France had plateaued, and he was running out of material for his fictional memoirs. It was time for a new chapter, with higher stakes. He went to Sarajevo in support of the Bosnian Serbs, allowing himself to be filmed firing a machine gun over the city, standing next to a man who would later be indicted for war crimes. This made him more famous, and that was good. It also made him a pariah in the Western publishing world, but he didn’t mind.

He moved back to Russia and founded the National Bolshevik Party along with the self-described fascist Aleksandr Dugin, a proponent of “Eurasianism” (which is rapidly gaining popularity in today’s Russia). Half Warhol’s Factory, half guerrilla hideaway, the National Bolshevik headquarters became a hangout for black-clad, marginalized youth, punk irony bleeding into bloodthirsty nationalism. After a camping trip that was supposedly the beginning of a ludicrous plot to establish a “second Russia” in northern Kazakhstan (which prefigured Russia’s recent, very real plan to establish a “new Russia” in Eastern Ukraine), Limonov was sent to prison, where he served two years. This made a fine addition to his résumé—call it his Monte Cristo period. He became a significant figure in the ragtag Russian opposition, in which the only real requirement was to hate Putin. His fame peaked when he liberalized his agenda, at least on paper, and became part of a short-lived coalition that included Gary Kasparov.

This is Limonov’s life as described by Carrère. Limonov adds a new layer of complexity to Carrère’s chosen genre: The nonfiction novel consists largely of paraphrases of its hero’s fictional memoirs, filled out with potted history and material gathered during a couple of weeks that Carrère spent with Limonov in Russia. Carrère says that he didn’t check any facts (this is clear: For example, Limonov’s second wife’s name was Elena, not Tanya), and that he chose to believe what Limonov says in his books because Limonov has “no imagination.” But Limonov is a confirmed fantasist, and his books are labeled as fiction. In His Butler’s Story, another of Limonov’s memoir-novels, the narrator, Edward, describes months spent sunbathing in Central Park in his underwear, improving his English by reading The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. It’s Me, Eddie shows a pleasing sense of irony about the narrator’s grandiose self-image and corresponding self-pity. Eddie-baby is a melodramatic antihero, passionate and charismatic and amoral, capable of drinking a liter of vodka without ill effects, of maintaining an erection for hours at a time. He is very much a literary character. Much of the humor of Limonov is Limonov’s, not Carrère’s, as are many of the observations about Limonov’s character—or rather, about the characters of the hero Limonov and the psychopath Limonov, creations of the writer Limonov. As good readers, we should consider Limonov an experimental novel; we can’t be too picky about the facts or assume that Carrère was just being lazy. But why doesn’t Carrère give Limonov this benefit of the doubt as well? By taking Limonov’s fantasies at face value, Carrère misses an important part of the story.

Carrère plays up what is sympathetic and pathetic, stripping away Limonov’s bravado and aggression. He admires Limonov for his bravery, originality, and resilience. While being careful to acknowledge the discomfort that Western readers will likely feel at some of Limonov’s more dubious adventures, Carrère struggles to convince us that in his heart Limonov is a pretty good guy. He argues that Limonov’s lack of imagination, and the fact that his literary career was based entirely on writing about himself, compelled him to do increasingly ridiculous and, in many cases, deeply immoral things, like shoot at Sarajevo. Limonov ends with Carrère’s rueful acknowledgment that he’s disappointed that his hero has turned out to be something of a loser, poor and alone in a half-furnished apartment. “A shitty life,” Limonov himself tells Carrère. But it isn’t such a sad end after all. Limonov wrote the page-turning story of his life, and Carrère, with his stylish paraphrasing, knack for narrative, and dutiful moral asides, has finally made this story a best seller. In Italy, they’re turning it into a movie; Carrère and Limonov were both hired as consultants.

Carrère describes Limonov as a person with “a realistic appreciation of reality.” This seems like a crazy thing to say about a quasi-fascist megalomaniac, but by the standards of Russian politics today it’s almost reasonable. The current war with Ukraine is literally Limonov’s dream come true: He’s been talking about recapturing Crimea since the ’90s. Many of the rebel leaders in Eastern Ukraine seem to have taken a page from Limonov’s book: Igor Girkin, the former “minister of defense” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, a far-right Russian nationalist who also fought with the Bosnian Serbs in the ’90s, is an avid war reenactor who loves to dress up. Like Limonov, the rebels are big Stalin fans, and they creak through the sunflower fields in antique tanks. One senior commander in the rebel forces is the author of a number of nationalist sci-fi novels. This summer, he told a reporter, “I fell right into the middle of my books. . . . Every day, enough happens for a novel.” When pressed, he identified his native country as “the matrix” (like in the movie) or the Soviet Union. Forget realpolitik: This is a war of fantasists. But the corpses are real.

Sophie Pinkham is writing a book about living in Ukraine.