I haven’t even finished reading Masha Gessen’s NYRB review of Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia by Emmanuel Carrère (translated from the French by John Lambert), but I was so amused and horrified by this passage I had to post it immediately:
At the same time, Carrère preserves the fibs and the factual errors of Limonov’s writing and adds many of his own. He has Andrei Sakharov exiled to Gorky for fifteen years in 1973—in fact, the Russian dissident was exiled in 1980 and was allowed to return home to Moscow in 1986. This is just one of dozens of inaccuracies: generally speaking, dates and figures in the book are more likely to be wrong than right. In addition, Carrère, the descendant of Russian émigrés and the son of a Kremlinologist, offers a variety of interpretations of Russian culture and language that bear the imprint of generations of distortion. Some are innocuous: he claims, for example, that “in the period following [World War II], cities aren’t called cities but ‘population concentrations’”—when in fact “population concentration” is simple bureaucratese for all cities, towns, and villages.
Some of his renditions are almost comically wrong. Carrère, for example, writes that Limonov’s father worked as a “nacht-kluba, which you could translate as ‘nightclub manager,’ but which here means organizing leisure and cultural activities for the soldiers.” In fact, Limonov’s father worked on an army base as a nachalnik kluba, which is unrelated to any sinister German-sounding word for “night,” and translates simply as “club director.” In a detailed passage, he invents a convoluted version of the collective drinking binge, which he says is called zapoi—but that is simply the Russian word for “drinking binge,” which can be engaged in alone or in a group and has no attendant rituals other than the drinking itself.
A Russian-speaking reader could spend hours criticizing Carrère’s translations of Russian words: improbably, he manages to misuse just about every Russian term he includes in the book. Add the anachronisms and misstated dates, and you are faced with a most uneasy question: How much do facts matter?
My answer to the last question is, of course, “they matter a lot,” and I pity readers who take Carrère’s “pseudobiography” as gospel truth, but I do enjoy trouvailles like nacht-kluba.