Lost on the Road to Damascus

The Kingdom

by Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by John Lambert
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $28.00
Gueorgui Pinkhassov/Magnum Photos
Emmanuel Carrère, Paris, January 2017

The current French intellectual scene has produced few such prolific and prodigiously talented personalities as Emmanuel Carrère. He has directed a film, La Moustache (2005), based on his novel of the same name, with a Hitchcockian though oddly inconclusive plot about a man whose sanity is called into question when he shaves off his mustache and no one notices or even recalls that he ever had one. He has worked on the script for sixteen episodes of a TV series, Les Revenants (The Returned), about the dead reappearing among the living as if they had never gone away. He has written, under the title Je suis vivant et vous êtes morts (I Am Alive and You Are Dead), a biography of the American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whose explorations of bizarre and supernatural happenings obviously had a profound impact on Carrère.

Biography, and later autobiography, attracted Carrère after his screenwriting. His first biography, The Adversary, was devoted to an amiable man, Jean-Claude Romand, who ultimately murdered his entire household—wife, children, parents, and dog—and then converted to Christianity in prison. It seems clear that this criminal attracted Carrère’s attention not only because he was such a successful liar for most of his life but because he converted to a faith that Carrère himself had professed for almost three years.

It was his family that impelled Carrère into autobiography. His mother, though born in Paris, spoke Russian, and her background inspired him to write My Life as a Russian Novel, about her father, Georges Zourabichvili, who came from Tblisi and was also a professing Christian. Zourabichvili studied in Heidelberg, moved to France, and collaborated with the Nazis as an interpreter during the occupation. At the end of the war he was abducted and never seen again. Carrère’s familiarity with Russian served him well when he turned to a biography of a modern Russian poet, Eduard Limonov, who was one of the most obnoxious and immoral writers ever to have emerged from the Soviet Union.1 Limonov made a disreputable career in New York and Paris before returning to Putin’s Russia, where he at first opposed Putin and then became a supporter.

Carrère has now extended this bewilderingly wide-ranging output with a new book, The Kingdom, that in its garrulity and chaotic content echoes his earlier work. There are many allusions to Russian culture and repeated invocations of Philip K. Dick, who seems to be one of those American writers who touch on alternate realities, like Edgar Allan Poe, whom the French have adopted as one of their own. At one point Carrère recounts the entire plot of a story by Poe about incarcerated lunatics. His new book, like the earlier ones, defies categorization and blends autobiography with implausible speculation, this time about early Christianity, and about Saint Paul and…

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