Deep South v.3 n.3 (Spring 1997)
The Young Scoundrel (Molodoy Niigodyay) A Novel by Eduard Limonov
The Young Scoundrel is Eduard Limonov's memoir of his transformation from provincial hoodlum to avant-garde poet, played out on the streets of Kharkov, a grim Soviet industrial town, in the early 1960's. The Young Scoundrel is a wild, fierce book about inventing oneself. The hero is Eduard Savenko--who becomes, in the course of the book, the renamed Eduard Limonov ("Edward Lemon"). It is a war story: the protagonist's Rastignac-like war against everything which is not his, and which stands in the way of his fame. At the time the novel opens, Eduard is 21, and has prepared by years of self-discipline and ruthless adaptation to make it to the big-time: a literary career in Moscow itself, the Promised Land for kids growing up in the grime and poverty of Kharkov.
The Young Scoundrel is the second part of Limonov's magnificent trilogy, Ours Was A Great Epoch (U Nas Bwil Velikhii Epokh). The first volume, The Adolescent Savenko (translated as Memoir of A Russian Punk and published by Grove Wedienfeld in 1990) details the first self-transformation made by this grim, quiet mind: the boy Eduard Savenko's decision (after being beaten up at age nine) to transform himself into a hardcore street hooligan. The Young Scoundrel continues the story of this same boy's later decision to retrace his steps in the opposite direction, transforming himself, in his early twenties, from hooligan to bohemian writer.
There is no writer working in any of the world's major literary languages who brings to memoir-writing the same stark celebration of the literary ego, the self-made literary self, which Limonov gives it. The real hero of this story is the literary ego itself, which Limonov calls "my iron will" (and often interrupts his narrative to praise). Eduard is fascinated by the cast of characters he encounters in the many worlds he enters in his pilgrim's progress to fame and immortality--but he knows that they are only peripheral figures who must always be considered as tools to be used in his own crusade to take Moscow by storm.
But while maintaining his distance from everyone around him (even his wonderful girlfriend/victim/nanny, "the poor Jewish woman" Anna Moiseyevna Rubinshtein), Eduard manages to observe with a naturalist's amoral delight one of the most extraordinary casts in twentieth-century literature. From the cold castle of the literary ego, Limonov observes with the eye of a bird of prey the people around him: painters, thugs, booksellers, lunatics, doctors, cops, thieves, their little "Mafias"--giving to each Mafia the same stark, direct description, whether he is describing the dominant gang of the "Violent Ward" of a Kharkov mental institution (one of his most delightful episodes, described in this part of the novel!) or the posturing and sly negotiations involved in a literary evening. It is this joy in the effulgent fauna of his previously-unnoticed world which makes me believe that Limonov would be one of the very few late-twentieth-century writers whom Neitzsche himself would have loved. I can think of no higher praise.
For those readers who may be joining the novel in progress, a brief summary of the tale so far may be useful. At the time he decides to become a great poet (and remember: in Soviet culture, poets were something like popstars, not the obscure academic figures they are in the West), Eduard has already made the most of his time on Earth. As Limonov says,
By the age of 21, [Eduard] had been a thief, a burglar, a foundry-worker, a high-rise fitter, a stevedore, a wanderer through the Crimea, the Caucasus, and Asia, sometimes beginning poems,then throwing away poems; yet he had never found himself. He didn't know who he was.
But he will find out, in the course of the novel--not so much "who he is" but what he wills himself to become. His first move is joining a group of Kharkov bohemian artists, drinkers and freelance Nihilists.
"Nihilists" has a nasty sound in our tame language, so let me make my own allegiances clear here: Go Nihilism! I heart my doghead! And my doghead is the Nihil itself, amen! Limonov is one of the few to show us its joys, and for this alone I owe him the effort of translation! Fuck the crypto-Christians who rule our fin-de-siecle and try to pretend that Victoria's not dead! Victoria the Famine Queen is as dead as a Di-do, her "ethics" interred with her--and a good thing too!
--Ahem! As the translator was saying before he momentarily lost volume control...here's the story of "The Young Scoundrel" so far: After trying on various identities, including a miscarried attempt to join a gang of con-men who pioneered credit fraud in the USSR, Eduard joins a group of Nihilist artists who call themselves the SS--relishing the notoriety of the name, and united by a contempt for the Soviet People, those "hegemonic elements" who are more rudely called "this herd of goats" by the shamelessly elitist members of the SS. All the members of the SS have reinvented themselves in some way. Paul, a former sailor, taught himself French so well he has lost his Russian accent entirely. His friend Viktorushka prefers German, demonstrates his linguistic skills in rather dangerous ways (such as reciting Hitler speeches in the original to a shocked audience of Kharkov diners) and shares this contempt for the boring Soviet reality in which they all have to live. Genka the Magnificent is the son of a local restaurant-management "Tsar," but lives only to drink and get in trouble. Anna Moiseyevna tries to keep hold of her scary young poet-lover while being "a good guy" in this very male-dominated world.
All share a basic belief: Anything but this, anywhere but here. They live as dangerously as they talk (unlike all the American nihilists I know), whether it means riding the camels at the Kharkov Zoo or opening their veins with straight-razors (the little incident which gets Eduard admitted to the "distinguished Kharkov institution," the Saburka Lunatic Asylum.
They fight. They scream. They betray and are betrayed. They shake their fists at the "virtue" of the herd of goats, and inevitably, they are beaten, they are punished. They sink from sight--and Eduard alone is left to tell thee that there was almost--almost!--an Age of Heroes in this tired, dying century; that those whom the dying Nietzsche tried so hard to believe were coming after him almost made it over the wall, after all.John Dolan