We the Living

Originally I was going to post a review on “Catch-22” today and, instead, find myself not having finished the book as yet.  Now, since I can’t very well review a book that I haven’t read from cover to cover I am instead posting a review on a book I just finished reading.  I know it’s another Rand book but I hope you’ll take the time to read it and, if you feel so inclined after my words- check out the book yourself!

(I swear- next week I’ll post a review on “Catch-22”!  I will finish it…  I will finish it…)

The year is 1922; Lenin is in power, the red party the new regime, and the ruling class is even more wetheliving2brutal than the Czars that came before.  It is the rise of the proletariat, the working class.  There is no private property- only state, only government.  Every aspect of life is kept track of: ration cards are dispensed to everyone.  Students get slightly more than the “non-working” citizen, union workers and party members being given the most.  Should you not have a party member in your family the only way to make up any shortage of food was to pay private traders or, most often, smugglers that are bringing food in and selling it on the black market.

It is in this world we first meet our protagonists: Kira, an eighteen year old, fresh from Crimea- her family having fled St. Petersburg (Petrograd) years before when her father, a textile factory owner, was stripped of his business and home; Leo, a student of philosophy that is being sought out by the GPU (military) because his father was a counter-revolutionary; Andrei, a party member, a revered member of the GPU and a student at the Institute where Kira is studying engineering.

Kira and Leo are both individuals within the state; they want only to study what they would like, to learn what they deem necessary and to do so for no other reason than because it is what they want.  Both with bourgeoisie roots their food supply is limited by their student status and what is left of any earnings after paying taxes to the party and its various programs.  Their life together, as fraught with struggle as it is, is something they both hold dear and unto themselves.  When Leo refuses to donate several hours after work to free instructional sessions for “the good of the State” he loses his job and they find themselves in a desperate situation where each lies to the other in hopes their partner, their love, will eat the only food they have.  One such instance of this is when Leo is standing in line at a co-op at the University:

Leo said to the clerk behind the counter, trying to make his voice pleading and making it only wooden, expressionless: “Comrade clerk, would you mind if I tear next week’s coupon off, too?  I’ll keep it and present it to you for my bread next week.  You see, I have…there’s someone at home and I want to tell her that I got a two weeks’ ration and ate my half on the way home, so that she’ll eat all of this piece…Thank you, comrade.”

In one short paragraph Rand shows us the desperation, the horror and the drive to support those we hold most dear through any means we have at our disposal.  Leo and Kira, living together, do everything they can to insure survival of the other person but when they are both thrown from their institutions of learning because of their family history the situation becomes even more desperate.  “Non-workers” and non-students get the smallest rations because they don’t contribute to the party and, at this point, it is all but impossible to gain employment without party or union status (union status only obtained if you’re working).

As Kira meets her friend Andrei for tea, him being a party member that can afford such things, he discovers how deprived she is and takes it upon himself to use his status to get her a job.  His devotion to her, in this moment, seems to over ride that of his party as he gives her all his money so she might buy food.  He stays devoted to her in his friendship, in his affection until one day he disappears from her life.  It is only through Kira’s persistence and desperation over Leo’s newly affirmed dire medical situation that the two are reconciled and Andrei confesses his love.

The story progresses, taking the reader further into the love each of our protagonists experience as well as others but, perhaps more overwhelmingly, this book depicts the struggle for life.  It is a struggle that does not just occur for those now being penalized for having “non-worker” roots, but for those that fought for the right to live for all people.  Those that wanted to see an end to czarist oppression and bring about a new form of liberty in their country; the people that believed in the doctrine of Marx, of Lenin’s view for their country.  The people that realized they formed a society, not for everyone, but for those in power and those willing to do anything to secure it, were then faced with the weighted guilt of killing so many outright, and even more by continuing to aid the monstrosity that was Lenin’s, then Stalin’s, regime.

This was Ayn Rand’s first novel and the beginning of her journey into the founding of “Objectivism”.  Originally published in 1937 under the assumption it would not make any money but simply a work that needed to be published it is, most assuredly, a book that many should read.  Through a gut wrenching portrayal of life in the USSR that Rand refers to as somewhat autobiographical, she shows the danger of those that seek to control others, to dictate how best to live, and how far and tragic having faith in a person to uphold your view can be.

The writing is a bit rough in some areas, some of the point of view shifts take you away from the story and emotion, but is still excellent.  Unlike some of her later works this book is chock full of humanity and human characters- those you can relate to and believe in their existence only making it all the eerier.  Her descriptions of the hunger, the sights and smell of the city as well as the outright fear of tuberculosis and of thinking are so poignant I often found myself weeping for the characters and thinking gratefully of my stores of food in the kitchen.  I couldn’t recommend this novel enough- if for no other reason than the copious amounts of information bestowed upon us by a woman that lived through this time period in Russia.  It is not the best novel I’ve ever read for all the reasons I mentioned above but I have yet to come across its equal in regard to historical accuracy, information as well as emotional poignancy.

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