by Laurence Miall on August 6, 2012Leave a comment
Shortly before her death, Susan Sontag wrote that narrative “does what lives (the lives that are lived) cannot offer, except after they are over. It confers – and withdraws – meaning or sense upon a life.” This year, France’s most prestigious literary prize went to Limonov, a biography that attempts not only to confer meaning on a life, but on a life that is not yet over. Eduard Limonov, founder of the National Bolshevik Party, is very much part of present-day politics in Russia. Along with grandmaster chess player, Gary Kasparov, he has been a leading voice of opposition to the rule of Vladimir Putin; he is the instigator of Strategy 31, which invokes Article 31 of the Russian constitution by staging legal protests far and wide; he has also spoken out against the prosecution of punk band, Pussy Riot.
To its enormous credit, Limonov reads very much like a novel, especially in the early going, where the sights, smells and sounds of Stalinist Ukraine are evoked at a level of detail that exceeds what I’ve come to expect from biography. Some of the writing is quite beautiful. A lot of it is very disturbing. Here is a scene from Limonov’s youth, when he was a member of a roving gang of thugs, in which he and his friends attack strangers on the street (warning, this is graphic):
Here is a guy and two girls who don’t get out of the way in time, and so quickly find themselves harassed. “You have two chicks for just you?” says Touzik [Limonov’s friend] suavely to the guy. “Won’t you lend us one?” The guy… tries to make a joke, but Touzik doubles him over with a punch to the stomach. At his signal, the others start pawing the girls. It’s going to become a rape… One of the girls is naked. She is fat, with pale skin… The bandits take turns putting their fingers in her pussy. Eduard follows suit. Inside it’s humid and cold. When he takes out his fingers, there’s blood on them. [My translation from the French original.]
Growing up, Eduard Limonov hated watching his mother incessantly berating his father, a low-level military functionary who never achieved the success she expected of him. Limonov once witnessed his father unquestioningly following orders and rounding up political prisoners for transport to the Gulag. He made a vow that he was not going to become the same kind of man. He most certainly made good on that vow.
There is another terrifying scene from his youth when he shows up outside the apartment of Elena, the woman he has fallen hopelessly in love with. She is inside with another man, and Limonov knows it. He screams and shouts through the door and then slices his wrist and bleeds all over her doorstep. Elena is struck by the depth of his passion. She eventually marries him.
From Limonov’s complicity in a gang rape, to his insatiable appetite for using up the lives of damaged women (at the book’s end, we learn Limonov has taken to dating minors), to his sympathy for fascism (exemplified by his friendship with Arkan, the Serbian warlord, and his decision to take part in the shelling of the Bosnian city of Sarajevo), Carrère’s chosen subject is never likeable. In fact, he is often a deranged asshole. Carrère, a self-confessed “bourgeois” writer, intervenes with his opinion whenever Limonov’s actions violate common decency. But throughout his intermittent tut-tutting, he cannot help but admire the relentless drive of this modern-day adventurer. Limonov is at its most compelling when its subject reaches his lowest points. After immigrating to New York with Elena, she starts cheating on him, they separate, and he finds himself jobless, friendless, and broke. He drinks for days on end. He also engages in random hook ups with other men. He finally pulls himself out of poverty by working as a butler to a rich Manhattanite, and it’s among this circle of high-rollers that his first book is discovered (It’s Me, Eddy, a memoir). It is the kind of rags-to-riches stuff that you’re unlikely to find in a more ordinary life.
I’ll fast forward through the many other remarkable chapters from this remarkable book and life to the year 2003. This is when Limonov was sent to prison after the conclusion of the sort of show-trial for which Russia is once again becoming notorious. He was accused of attempting to mount a small army for the purpose of invading Kazakhstan. This episode finally makes good on Carrère’s promise to find a meaning that transcends his subject’s recurrent narcissism and frequent nastiness. In the camp, Limonov is surrounded, as he was during his youth, by thugs. But this time, he distinguishes himself. He chooses not to take part in their daily conflicts. He remains impartial, treats everyone with respect, helps illiterate prisoners write letters home to family members and lovers, applies himself with zeal to the most Sisyphean of menial labours, and practises daily meditation. Through his exemplary conduct, he earns himself the admiration of his fellow prisoners, not to mention early release.
In identifying both the best and worst of Limonov, Carrère has achieved a portrait of rare depth. The book also succeeds as a journey through many of the important events of the last sixty years of European history – events in which our anti-hero played a peripheral but nevertheless meaningful part. He is a villain, hero, rebel, fascist, or freedom-fighter, depending on your perspective, but I think a reader of any description would be hard pressed to find a more compelling subject for a biography.