Limonov, A Novel by Emmanuel Carrère - book review: This portrait of an outsider on an ego trip fails to convince

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The Independent Culture

I have a bone to pick with Eduard Limonov. Back in the 1990s, while covering the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, we heard of a strange Russian "poet" who had joined the Serbs up in the hills, blasting away at the city below with a machine gun. There is Limonov, listening reverently to the Bosnian Serb boss, Radovan Karadzic, as the latter blathers away about "the Turks" – a pejorative Serbian term for Bosnian Muslims – before excusing himself to chat with his wife and leaving Limonov behind a machine gun. Bang, bang!

Like most people, I had since forgotten about Limonov, who enjoyed 15 minutes of fame as the author of some racy novels about the Soviet Union before disappearing from view, at least in the West. Emmanuel Carrère did not forget. Convinced that Limonov's life story has a heroic quality to it, he has reproduced it in fine detail. Carrère describes his book as a novel, which enables him to be inside Limonov's head as well as outside it, sitting in judgment. This confusion over who is telling this story and over whether what we are reading is "true", actually adds to its energy.

Limonov certainly took life by the scruff of the neck. Brought up in eastern Ukraine at the fag end of the Soviet era, armed only with "a knife and a cock", he crashed his way into literary circles in the provinces before hightailing it to Moscow where he made enough of a nuisance of himself for the Soviet authorities to bundle him out of the country. He landed in America. The fickle New Yorkers petted him for a while, but lost interest, after which Limonov sank into the gutter, eventually taking a job he detested as a butler. Turning these bitter experiences into words, he compiled a couple of semi-autobiographical novels that a French publisher picked up, after which he hopped over to Paris and briefly became a literary star there.

The problem with this book is that the most interesting part of the story ends there. A total egotist, Limonov could only write about himself, which is why, after "It's me, Eddie" and the various follow-ups, the writing career stalled. Meanwhile, the totalitarian mindset came ever more to the fore. He went to Bosnia to blast away at the Muslims and was promptly dropped by the Parisians – who like to be shocked, but not shocked like that.

Carrère tries hard to present Limonov as a modern knight errant, a bright meteor in our dull, grey universe. I wasn't persuaded. Interestingly, when he meets his hero towards the end of the book, Limonov assures him that he has led "a shitty life". For once, Limonov was right.

Allen Lane £20 . Order for £16 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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