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 We the Living - Ayn Rand

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PostSubject: We the Living - Ayn Rand   Thu Oct 14, 2010 10:54 pm

I have just finished reading the novel "We the Living" by Ayn Rand. It was a very good book in my opinion. Some parts were very long reading while others seemed to go by far to fast. If you are a heavey reader or maybe just looking for a good book, this is a good one.

The story takes place from 1922 to 1925, in post-revolutionary Russia. Kira Argounova, the protagonist of the story, is the younger daughter of a bourgeois capitalist. An independent spirit with a will to match, she rejects any attempt by her family or the nascent Socialist State to cast her into a mold. At the beginning of the story, Kira returns to Petrograd along with her family, after a prolonged exile from the assault of the revolutionaries. Kira's father had been the owner of a textile factory, which had been seized and nationalized. The family, having given up all hopes of regaining their past possessions after the emphatic victories of the Red Army in the last four years, is resigned to its fate, as it returns to the city in search of livelihood. It finds, to its dismay, that their expansive mansion has likewise been seized, and converted to living quarters for several families. Left with nowhere to go, the family moves into Kira's aunt Marussia's apartment.

The severity of life in the newly socialized Russia is biting and cruel, especially for the people belonging to the now-stigmatized middle class. Kira's uncle Vasili has also lost his family business to the state, and has been forced to sell off his possessions, one at a time, for money (which has lost much of its value owing to steep inflation rates). Money has ceased to be a major representative of "wealth and power". Private enterprises have been strictly controlled, and licenses to run them allotted only to those "enjoying the trust" of the proletariat. Food is rationed. Only laborers of nationalized businesses and students in state-run educational institutions have access to ration cards. The family of five survives on the ration cards allotted to the two younger members of the family, who are students.

After a brief stay at Vasili's home, Kira's family manages to find for itself living quarters. Kira's father also manages to get a license to open a textile shop, an establishment but a shadow of his old industry. Life is excruciatingly difficult in these times. Rand portrays the bleak scenarios by vivid descriptions of long queues, weary citizens and low standards of living. (Everyone regularly cooks on a kerosene camp stove, usually a Swedish Primus stove, and the typical main course is millet, or whatever can be blended together.)

With some effort, Kira manages to register with the State and obtain her Labor Book (which permits her to study and work). Kira also manages to enroll herself into the Technological Institute, where she aspires to fulfill her dream of becoming an engineer. She plans to storm the male bastion of engineers, and show her prowess by building strong structures and powerful machines. Kira's strength of resolve to fulfill her dream is asserted again and again, at various points in the storyline. Becoming a meritorious engineer would be Kira's answer to carve for herself a niche, in a society that has become characterless and anonymous, and whose primary purpose in life has been reduced to subsistence, rather than excellence. At the Institute, Kira meets Andrei Taganov, a co-student, an idealistic Communist, and an officer in the G.P.U, the secret police of the Soviet. The two share a mutual respect and admiration for each other in spite of their differing political beliefs. Andrei and Kira develop a friendship that endures until the end of the story.

In a chance encounter, Kira meets Leo Kovalensky on a dark night in a seedy neighborhood. Leo is an extremely attractive man with a free spirit, only to be matched by Kira's. It's love at first sight for Kira, and she unflinchingly throws herself at Leo. Leo, who initially takes her to be a prostitute, is also strongly attracted to her and promises to meet her again. Kira and Leo are shown to be united by their desperate lives, and their lofty beliefs that ran counter to what were being thrust on them by the State. After a couple of meetings, when they share their deep contempt for the state of their lives, the two plan to escape together from the land, on a clandestine mission operated by secret ships.

The novel, from this point on, cascades into a series of catastrophes for Kira and Leo. They are caught while attempting to flee the country, but escape imprisonment due to the generosity of a G.P.U. official, Stepan Timoshenko, who had fought under the command of Leo's father before the revolution. Kira leaves her parents' apartment and moves into Leo's. The relationship between Kira and Leo, intense and passionate in the beginning, begins to deteriorate under the weight of their hardships, and because of their different reactions to these hardships. Kira, who is a realist, keeps her ideas and aspirations alive, but decides to go with the system anyway, until she feels powerful enough to challenge it. Her candor about her ideas at the Institute ultimately results in her expulsion from the Institute, despite Andrei's efforts to avert it. On the verge of starvation, Kira finds work with the help of Andrei, enough to retain her ration card. Leo, however, burdened by his class background, and without any communist friend to help him, fails to find work, and sinks slowly into indifference and depression. He contracts tuberculosis and is prescribed treatment and recuperation in a sanatorium in Crimea in the South. Kira's efforts to finance his treatment fail, and her passionate appeals to the authorities to get State help for his stay at the sanatorium fall on deaf ears.

Andrei, an equally important person in Kira's life, is portrayed by Rand as a man of character, resolve, and an unassailable loyalty to his party and ideology. Despite his political beliefs, Kira finds him to be the one person she could trust, and with whom she could discuss her most intimate thoughts and views. Not even Leo could fulfill that role for her. Andrei's affection and respect for Kira knows no bounds, and is slowly transformed into love. Worried what this might do to their "beautiful and rare" friendship, he starts avoiding Kira. Kira misses him, and needs his help. Eventually when she confronts him in his house, Andrei explains his avoidance of her and confesses his love for her. Kira is dismayed at first, but recovers to find in it a way to finance Leo's treatment. Reluctant, but in desperation, she feigns love for Andrei, and agrees to become his mistress in return for the promise of complete secrecy about their relationship. Kira is never comfortable with what she was doing with her body, but is even more frightened by "what she was doing to another man's soul".

The narrative reaches a state of climactic pace when Leo returns from Crimea, cured of tuberculosis and healthy, but a changed man. Ignoring Kira's protests, he opens a food store with the help of his morally bankrupt and rich friends, and a corrupt member of the Communist Party. The store is but a facade for illegal speculation and trade. Andrei is tipped off about this venture by Stepan Timoshenko, who commits suicide after depositing a key piece of evidence with him. Ignoring Kira's pleas, and unaware of her love for Leo, Andrei starts investigating Leo's store. After a search at his house, he arrests Leo for crimes against the State, which could carry a death sentence. In the process, he finds out about Kira's relationship with Leo. The ensuing confrontation between Andrei and Kira is perhaps the most poignant passage in the story. In the end, both realize what they had done to each other and how their passion and pretension had led them to the destruction of what each had held in "the highest reverence". Andrei decides to redress the situation, at least for Kira, and moves to restore Leo to her, risking his own standing in the Party.

After Leo's release from the prison at Andrei's behest, the story ends in a tragedy for all the three. Andrei loses his position in the Party, and shortly thereafter, commits suicide. Kira, perhaps the only genuine mourner at his State funeral, wonders if she had killed him. Leo, having lost any moral sense that he may have left, leaves Kira to begin a new life as a gigolo, fulfilling the earlier portrayal of him as such by a perceptive Irina, Kira's cousin. After Leo's departure, Kira makes a final attempt to cross the border. When she is almost in sight of freedom and liberation from her hellish life, she is shot by a border guard and soon dies. Kira remains loyal to her love for Leo until the end, and says at one point "When a person dies, one does not stop loving him, does one?"

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