Emmanuel Carrère's book is a beautifully written, absorbing account of the life and times of a Russian poet, dissident and man-of-action: Edward Limonov. Though relatively unknown in the UK and most other European countries, Limonov is a well-known and highly divise figure in modern day Russia. This is in essence a biography of Limonov, an extraordinary, stranger-than-fiction story about a character who seems to have lived about ten lives in his 70 years of existence, each of which is so full of action, reflections, successes and failures as to seem almost too far-fetched if it were fiction.
For those unfamiliar with Limonov (as I was before picking up the book last week), after being born into a modest family in post-war Ukraine, he became in turn a neighbourhood thug, found fame as an underground poet in Moscow, emigrated to New York where, his dreams crashing down around him, he became a tramp and gay cruiser before finding employment as a multi-billionnaire's personal valet. If this is starting to sound far-fetched, keep holding your breath. He then moved to France where he found fame and admiration as a fashionable writer in Paris, left at the height of his renown to fight in the Yugoslav wars of '92-'95 and then moved back to Russia to start an armed insurrection. He is currently alive and well, and has become the leader of one of Russia's main democratic opposition parties, the neo-fascist 'National Bolsheviks'.
Limonov's personal story and outrageous behaviour makes the book compelling, but for me it was just as absorbing to see the world through the eyes of this enigmatic character. Or rather, to see 'various worlds', for in telling the story of Limonov, the writer, Carrère, is also telling a story of life in communist Russia, life on the streets in the USA, life in the harsh world of Russian prisons and western society seen through the eyes of an uncompromising Russian pragmatist, not afraid to go against the grain or to cause scandal and outrage. Carrère's smooth writing style makes the book a pleasure to read, and is intelligent and subtle without becoming self-indulgent.
My only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that Carrère's final evaluation of Limonov as a sort of failed Putin seems to be somewhat at odds with everything we've learnt about him throughout the book; if his portrayal is accurate then he would surely be too much of an uncompromising idealist to accept the level of corruption and mismanagement prevalent in Putin's Russia, even though he would probably be in agreement with many of Putin's strong-arm methods.
Despite this minor qualm, I would not hesitate to recommend this book. Absorbing, entertaining, but also inspiring and repulsive in equal measures, I don't know many people who wouldn't get something out of this book.
NB: This review refers to the French version of the book. An English translation is not yet available as far as I am aware.
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