Tuesday, July 12, 2011

We the Living by Ayn Rand...

  For those of you that love dystopian stories, well here is one that is based on reality and not in the future but in the past.  The precursor for all those YA dystopian novels that are so popular of late.  But this is not a futuristic, prophecy, one person saves the world novel.  It is the struggle of several people in a country that successfully choked off it's citizens with propaganda and fear.  There is a growing extremism in the right wing in America that eerily mimics the underlying theme in this book...
   We the Living is both a story of the atrocities the human race is capable of and the human spirit to defy it, overcome it.  A quick bio of Ayn Rand for those not familiar with her...
"Alisa Rosenbaum was born in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg to a prosperous Jewish family. At age six she taught herself to read and two years later discovered her first fictional hero in a French magazine for children, thus capturing the heroic vision which sustained her throughout her life.  During her high school years, she was eyewitness to both the Kerensky Revolution, which she supported, and—in 1917—the Bolshevik Revolution, which she denounced from the outset. In order to escape the fighting, her family went to the Crimea, where she finished high school. The final Communist victory brought the confiscation of her father's pharmacy and periods of near-starvation. When introduced to American history in her last year of high school, she immediately took America as her model of what a nation of free men could be.  Alisa returned to the city (renamed Leningrad) to attend the university, but in 1926 relatives who had already settled in America offered her the chance of joining them there. With money from the sale of her mother's jewellery, Alisa bought a ticket to New York. On arrival at Ellis Island, she changed into Ayn (the name of a Finnish writer) Rand (taken from the brand name of her Remington-Rand typewriter). She moved swiftly to Hollywood, where she learnt English"  OK maybe not so brief a bio, lol, but her life is amazing and can't, shouldn't be summed up in a slipshod manner, to do so is a huge disservice to her.  OK now onto the book it is set per-Russian Revolution and progresses into the revolution and partly to the post-revolution.  In Rand's own words, "It is as near to an autobiography as I will edver write.  The plot is invented, the background is not.... The specific events of Kira's life were not mine; her ideas, her convictions, her values, were and are."
  Kira Argounova and her family left Petrograd for the Crimea to await the capital's liberation from the "Red Yoke".  After years of the Crimea changing hands they decide to head back to Petrograd.  They board a train, which has no set schedules nor stops, they get on with scores of other refugees packed like sardines.  Most people with lice, dirty & starving.  Women get raped, people get thrown from the moving train and thieves steal what little people have.  We are introduced to the Arounovs on this train of desperate souls.  Kira Arounova is our heroine.  I have to copy the description of Kira from the book, because it is done in such a unique way and shows how the perception of an uncaring individual blindly perceives another with indifference to the true being of the individual.

"Every citizen over sixteen had to have a labor book and was ordered to carry it at all times.  It had to be presented and stamped when he found employment or left it; when he moved into an apartment or out of one; when he enrolled at a school, got a bread card or was maried.  The new Soviet passport was more than a passport: it was a citizen's permit to live.  It was called 'Labor Book,' for labor and life were considered synonymous.
The Russian Socialist Federation Soviet Republic was about to acquire a new citizen.  The official held the little book bound in gray burlap, whose many pages he was going to fill.  He had trouble with his pen; it was old and rusty, and dragged strings from the botom of the inkstand.  On the clean open page he wrote:
Name: Argounova, Kira Alexandrovna - Height: Medium.

Kira is 18, - Her body was slender, it seemed the words she said were ruled by the will of her body and that her sharp movements were the unconscious reflection of a dancing, laughing soul.  So that her spirit seemed physical and her body spiritual.
The official wrote: Eyes: Gray
Kira's eyes were dark gray, the gray of storm clouds from behind which the sun can be expected at any moment.  They looked at people quietly, directly, with something that people called arrogance, but which was only a deep, confident calm that seemed to tell men her sight was too clear and none of their favourite binocluars were needed to help her look at life.
Mouth: Ordinary
Kira's mouth was thin, long.  When silent, it was cold, indomitable, and men thought of a Valkyrie with lance and winged helmet in the seep of battle.  But a slight movement made a wrinkle in the corners of her lips-and men thought of an imp perched on top of a toadstoool, laughing in the faces of daisies.
Hair: Brown
Kira's hair was short, thrown black off her forehead, light rays lost in its tangled mass, the hair of a primitive jungle woman over a face that had escaped from the easel of a modern artist who had been in a hurry: a face of straight, sharp lines sketched furiously to suggest an unfinished promise."
  I give this description because it truly best  describes Kira.  She is indifferent to the societal expectations of every citizen.  She is indifferent to the starvation of not only her people, but her family and herself as well.  She is indifferent to the men that attempt to court her.  She sees beauty not in sunsets nor flowers; "She saw no difference between weeds and flowers.  But she stood for an hour looking at the black silhouette of a tall soldier against the roaring flame of a blazing oil well he had been posted to guard."  She is indifferent to the collective.  Which may be her greatest crime.  In a society where the individual does not exist but to serve the whole, the Proletariat.  She doesn't dream but believes she will be an architect.  A designer of great steel buildings.
  Kira meets a mysterious man who is on the run from the communist government.  For the 1st time she falls for a man, but not in love in the traditional starry eyed love.  More of a raw emotional feeling and desire.  Leo Kovalensky is tall, defiant, strong and as indifferent to love and the collective as she is.  They're meeting is brief and they plan to meet in one month in the same spot they met, for he has to flee the country or be caught and persecuted.  For what?  He doesn't say and Kira doesn't ask.
  In the interim month Kira begins classes at the Technological Institute where she meets Andrei Taganov, a former soldier that is a card carrying party member.  But to Kira he isn't like the rest of the communist party.  He's gentler, more intelligent.  They become quick friends and yet the reader can already tell that he is enamoured with her.  Yet she still thinks of Leo.  We are also introduced to a weasel of a human named Pavel Syerov.  Pavel and Andrei were soldiers together, but the differences stop there.  Andrei emerged from the war a hero and Pavel a parasite leaching of Andrei's success.  She and Taganov spend many days together in and out of the University.  Kira thinking of him as a friend, but Taganov's feelings are very clear for her.  One day they go to the country and picnic and laugh and talk and agree to meet the next day, but when she reaches the meet point on the specified day and time he does not show.  She is left to wonder what happened.
  After 1 month Kira & Leo meet again and he admits he had no intention of coming back, that he could've left 3 days before, if it was not for the draw of her.  He tells her of his plans to leave Russia, being smuggled out by boat.  He does not ask her to go, she does not ask to go rather she tells him she's going, not for the sentimentality of love at least only in part of that reason, but because she has never met an individual like he before and is compelled by his very being.  He tells her they must leave at that  moment and she will not be able to she can't telephone any farewells, to which she replies, "I don't have to".  She is willing to leave her country with a man she met once, knows nothing about except he is wanted for counter-revolutionary activities and not say a word to her family.  This should seem ludacrist but in truth it feels right.  The way Rand writes it, it not only makes sense but you find yourself rooting for them to get the hell out.  They board the boat in the dead of the night.  In the dark of the cramped cabin they are intimate for the first time. It isn't a romantic, "he touched me and I quivered" making love scene, but a subtle rawness that is prevalent of the character of the Russian people.  Leo orders her to take off her clothes and, "She said nothing, and did not move her glance away from his, and obeyed.  She unfastened the strap of her slip and let it fall under her breast.  She was about to unfasten the other strap, but he tore her off the ground, and then she was arched limply in space, her hair hanging limply over his arm, her breast at  his mouth.  Then she felt his legs like warm liquid against hers.  Her hair fell over the edge of the bed.  Her lips parted as in a snarl."
  I need to make this review shorter, b/c I am going to end up telling the entire story.  I can't help it, it is such a good book I'm afraid my review will not impress  upon you the greatness of Rand's work.  The struggle of these characters, their spirit, their love, their deaths.  "This is not a story of politics, but of the men and women who have to struggle for existence behind the Red banners and slogans.  It is a picture of what those slogans do to the human beings.  What happens to the defiant ones.  What happens to those who succumb..."
  Well the love triangle that forms between Kira, Leo and Andrei Taganov, a former soldier in the Red army and high level party member, is not your normal love triangle.  Kira only becomes Andrei's lover to save Leo but in time she does begin to see Andrei is not the villain she 1st thought.  He in time starts questioning the Proletariat and their intentions.  The war he fought for the Red Army was based on the idea to free his people from enslavement and starvation only to deliver them into just that.  It comes down to 3 people trying to stay alive in a society that is trying to crush them.  Leo becomes a criminal, and it is Andrei who leads the investigation to take him down, but he had no idea Leo and Kira were together, let alone living together.  When Andrei goes to open the investigation he finds that a comrade, but not a friend of his, is involved.  An officer in the party no less, Pavel Syerov, who is a weasel of a character. Andrei's intention is to bring them all down but his superiors tell him no.  They cannot afford a black eye against the party and having an officer of the party involved in illegal activities would certainly do that.  Andrei must set his net for one and one only, Leo.  Andrei knows Leo and knows he is friends with Kira, but he does not know they are lovers nor that they are living together.  Andrei goes to Leo's home with soldiers to search the place for evidence, even though they don't need evidence to arrest him, they have the investigation report and that is enough.  As Andrei is searching the apartment, he comes across women's clothes, perfume, items that he gave as gifts to only one woman, Kira Argounova.  His heart breaks and his world spins.  At that moment she comes home and is not completely astounded to find Andrei there.  Leo still has no idea they are lovers, but he suspected.  It must be said that Leo had turned into an alcoholic and was out every night with his partner's girlfriend, he didn't care that he was flashing money he shouldn't have from an illegal venture.  He was taunting the Proletariat because he had given up on life and wanted it to all end.  Only Kira kept him from succumbing to the death of the Proletariat, not a physical death but the death of the mind, the individual, the spirit.
  There is a heart wrenching scene where Kira's cousin is in love with a counter revolutionist and is harbouring him to get him out of the country.  Kira's cousin, Irina is engaged to this "criminal", Sasha, but has to hide him her room for fear her brother, Victor, might discover him.  Victor is the only member of the family deeply immersed in the Proletariat party.  Though he can't get far due to his father's lack of support for the Communist party and is considered an aristocrat and a threat to the collective.  Victor discovers Ivan is hiding out in his house but does not let on to anyone in the family that he knows.  He heads to the GPU and turns his sister and Sasha in.  Soldiers come to take the Sasha  and Irina away.  Irina's father, Vasili, tries to appeal to the authorities to send them to the same prison in Siberia.  He doesn't beg for them to be released or pardoned, but simply to be sent to the same prison.  He is turned down at every attempt.  Kira tries to get Andrei to help, but he is turned down as well and told to watch where his loyalties stood.  The time comes when Irina and Sasha are on the same train to a station where they will be separated and sent to different prisons in Siberia, where apparently no prisoner ever leaves alive.  They either die of startvation or malnutrition or illness or all 3.  At the junction where they are to separate the reader can't help but get emotionally caught up in their separation. 
  After Leo is arrested later that night Kira goes to Andrei's and verbally lashes out at him, telling him she used him, that she loved Leo and would always love Leo that every time they made love it was Leo she thought of.  Andrei stands silently, unemotionally letting her vicious words whip him.   It's at this point Kira notices something that makes her hold her tongue and an understanding comes over her.  She becomes apologetic and suddenly drained of all emotions she collapses.  Andrei gently revives and sees her home.  Andrei goes to see Pavel Syerov, the dog that should be punished but escapes retribution from the party.  Andrei tells him he has evidence that he will send to higher authorities in Moscow if he does not release Leo Kovalensky.  Andrei risks his life and standing in the party to save him.  He did this for Kira but he did because he did not believe in his party any longer.  Andrei comes to their home and Leo is angry saying he wished he would have been left to die in prison.  Andrei tells him he has everything to live for as he looks at Kira.  Andrei leaves and Kira follows him out to say one last good-bye.  Kira is not torn by whom to be with, it is Leo, always Leo, but she does love Andrei for everything he has given her.
  Andrei loses his status in the party and is relegated to a libririan's position at the Lenin Library Nook.  He goes day to day with a lack of emotion uncommon to him until finally one day he goes home and sets fire to everything that had to do with Kira, he destroys any papers or items that he does not want to be discovered by the party.  He calmly puts a bullet through his head.  They throw a grand parade in his honour, a soldier of the party! A true hero, but not as an individual but for his work towards the collective.  Pavel Syerov and other swine speak at his funeral.  "He was a soldier in the Red Army, fought for freedom, but his individual acts aren't to be praised it was all for the Proletariat!"
  Kira silently attended the procession and stayed after all were gone to watch his grave be covered.  When she returns to her their room Leo tells her that Pavel Syerov came to see him before she got home and told him that she & Andrei were lovers.  Kira doesn't deny it.  Leo hates Kira for making him not give up when all he wanted to do was give up, succumb to Russia.   He never fully succumbed because of her.  But Leo is far from innocent.  He tells her, he is leaving with his ex-partners girlfriend.  She has money and he will be her gigolo.  He made this decision before he knew about Kira and Andrei being lovers.  Kira is distraught at first but then true to her defiant spirit she accepts it and says good-bye.  She moves back in with her family and schemes to leave the country on her own.  She tells her family that she has filed an application for a foreign passport.  She is denied.  She schemes to find a way out of the country and after much bribing and talking she finds a way.  She has heard of others that have dressed all in white (to camoflague themselves with the snow) and trek across the border.  Such a trip is dangerous and ill advised because it must be done at night and the snow and cold in that region is unbearable.  She leaves her family without a word and hops a train that will take her to a point where she will have to trek to the Latvian border.  She comes upon a house that has harboured those on their way to the border.  She gives them some rubles and they in turn give her food and advice.  Once she is done she is off in the dead of night to the border.  She finds the journey arduous and slow going.  She is not properly outfitted for such temperatures and her legs sink in the snow making it harder to walk.  She sees a soldier in the distance and falls on her stomach.  She crawls, then stops, then crawls a little  more as to not give away her presence.  The soldier thinks he sees something move in the distance, but can't tell due to poor visibility caused by the swirling snow.  He is too lazy to venture to the spot where he sees the movement, so he aims his gun and fires.  When nothing screams out he determines that is was probably just a rabbit and he moves on.  Kira gets back up and notices a growing red circle under her breast.  She simply thinks, so this is what is like to be shot.  It is not so bad.  She trudges forward despite the wound and the burning in her chest and legs.  She never relents but keeps moving forward.  Until finally she can move no more.  She collapses to her knees screaming for Leo. "Leo!... Leo!...  Leo!"  "She lay on the edge of a hill looked down at the sky.  One hand white and still, hung over the edge, and little red drops rolled slowly in the snow, down the slope.  She smiled.  She knew she was dying.  But it did matter any longer.  Life, undefeated, existed and could exist.
  She smiled, her last smile, to so much that had been possible."
 As tragic as the end is, it is the only acceptable end for this story.  I have not done this book justice in my review.  The book is far more layered, characters far more fleshed out, emotions far more felt then I could ever truly equal in this or any review.  Excellent 1st novel by a woman I have come to admire and respect.  Thank you Ms. Rand.  Rating: XXXs out of three.

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