Just as Emmanuel Carrère’s earlier book “The Adversary” was an “In Cold Blood”-style “nonfiction novel” about a man who murders his wife, children and parents, so his latest, “Limonov,” might be called a novelized biography. While tracking the amazing, improbable life of Ukrainian writer, adventurer and would-be revolutionary Eduard Limonov, the book interweaves a social and political history of post-Stalinist Russia, chunks of Carrère’s autobiography and a hodgepodge of reflections on art, sex, ambition, the punk aesthetic, fascism, mysticism and old age.
Because Carrère — celebrated in France as a journalist, screenwriter and novelist — possesses such an intimately engaging narrative voice, “Limonov” feels almost nonchalant yet is, in fact, quite artfully orchestrated and completely riveting. The first sentence of John Lambert’s superb English translation immediately hooks the reader: “Until Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her elevator on October 7, 2006, only those who had been closely watching the Chechen wars knew the name of this courageous journalist and declared opponent of Vladimir Putin’s politics.”
Asked to write a magazine piece about Politkovskaya’s life, Carrère first visits the opposition newspaper where she worked, and in one sentence he captures its forlorn hopelessness: “The offices were tiny, poorly lit, and equipped with old computers.” A few days later, he attends the annual memorial service for those who died during the 2002 terrorist siege of the Dubrovka Theater. In the crowd, writes Carrère, “I recognized Limonov.”
At that time, Limonov was the leader of the National Bolshevik Party, whose skinhead members marched to reactionary slogans like “Stalin! Beria! Gulag!” A few years earlier, Limonov had supported the brutal Serbs in their war against the equally brutal Croats and Bosnians. He’d also spent time in Russian prisons for alleged terrorist activities. Nonetheless, Limonov’s books, such as “Diary of a Loser,” were bestsellers, and his sexy young wife was the star of a Russian soap opera. Still vigorous and energetic in his late 60s, with a steel-trap memory, a wispy goatee and a hard, muscular frame, he resembled the rare-book scout played by Johnny Depp in “The Ninth Gate.” Or Trotsky.
But, as Carrère tells us, the arch-nationalist Limonov had had many other lives before that of “fighter and professional revolutionary.” The son of a low-ranking officer in the secret police, he was born in 1943 and grew up in the town of Kharkov yearning to be famous. Early on, the boy concluded that “there are two kinds of people, those you can hit and those you can’t — not because they’re stronger or better trained, but because they’re ready to kill. That’s the secret, the only one.” As Carrère writes: “He will become someone you don’t hit because you know he can kill.”
Nonetheless, there’s more to young Eddie than ruthlessness, iron self-control and an ability to down vast amounts of vodka. For instance, he composes prize-winning poetry, dresses like a mod dandy and, to pay the bills, works as a talented, self-taught tailor. When he moves to Moscow in 1967, however, Limonov meets a “lanky twenty-year-old brunette dressed in a leather miniskirt.” The gorgeous Tanya beds him, but she shares her favors with other men, and so one night — crazed with jealousy and Russian despair — Limonov slits his wrists on her doorstep. Naturally, Tanya is deeply impressed by this gesture, and the pair soon marry, becoming the Scott and Zelda of the Soviet glam scene of the 1970s.
Still, Limonov the writer resents all the attention paid to poet Joseph Brodsky and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As Carrère remarks, “the only living legend that interests him is himself.” When an opportunity arises to emigrate to the West, the handsome couple seize it, and in 1975 arrive in New York.
For a while, they are feted and petted by the local Russophiles, notably Alexander Liberman, artistic director of Conde Nast, and his wife, Tatiana. But soon Limonov is working for a depressing Russian-language newspaper, and Tanya is just another failed would-be model — as well as the plaything of a photographer heavily into sadomasochism. One day Limonov comes back to their apartment, and his beautiful wife is gone.
Broken-hearted, the youthful-looking 33-year-old decides to give up women in favor of men. He has sex with vagrants in parks, lives in a squalid hotel and spends his days working on “It’s Me, Eddie,” the first in a series of autobiographical books. No American publisher wants it.
Following this gay interlude, Limonov next becomes the lover of a housemaid and, after a while, her rich employer’s butler. As it happens, he turns out to be the perfect servant — trustworthy, obsequious and polite. But as he later reveals in “His Butler’s Story,” when left alone, he would drink his boss’s best champagne and bring in hookers for romps in the master bedroom. Then, unexpectedly, everything changes again: “It’s Me, Eddie” is published in France under the provocative title “The Russian Poet Prefers Big Blacks.” Limonov moves to Paris, where he finds himself an acclaimed writer, a minor celebrity.
At this point, Carrère opens up about his own privileged and often unhappy youth. Compared with Limonov, “I felt that I was made of dull and mediocre stuff, and that I was doomed in this world to play the role of a walk-on, and a bitter, envious walk-on at that.” Fortunately, Carrère eventually recognizes, in the words of a Buddhist sutra, that “a man who judges himself superior, inferior, or even equal to another does not understand reality.”
Unlike most of the Western world, the Paris-based Limonov doesn’t welcome perestroika. Why? Because it implies that 70 years of Russian history were nothing but a mistake and a nightmare, thus denigrating the millions of ordinary people who worked and sacrificed for a noble idea. Still, Limonov’s writing does become available in the Soviet Union. As result, when stopping in Belgrade on a book tour in the late 1980s, the celebrated author is invited to visit the recently liberated — that is, demolished — city of Vukovar. Like Gabriele D’Annunzio, T.E. Lawrence and other writers, Limonov is thrilled by this glimpse of war; Soon he throws himself into the Serbian cause, much to the consternation of his Parisian friends. The Johnny Rotten of Russian literature appears to have joined the fascist thugs. But, to use one of Carrère’s catch phrases, “Things are more complicated than they seem.”
After moving back to Russia permanently in the 1990s, Limonov reinvents himself once more, this time as a leading ultra-nationalist. He even publishes an incendiary newspaper called Limonka, “The Grenade.” But in the wide-open Wild West Russia of those Yeltsin years, Limonov and his National Bolshevik Party are no match for the ruthless multibillionaires who now pull the strings. For a while, however, freedom thrives despite political and financial chaos — until a former taxi driver named Vladimir Putin comes to power.
One man in his time plays many parts, and Eduard Limonov — now in his 70s — isn’t off the stage yet. Whatever you think of his actions and beliefs, Limonov has lived faithfully by the rule of “no hypocrisy, no embarrassment, no excuses.” It’s been a spectacular roller coaster life, and Emmanuel Carrère has turned it into an equally spectacular book.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.