Book Corner: ‘We the Living’ by Ayn Rand
“And what is the state but a servant and a convenience for a large number of people, just like the electric light and the plumbing system? And wouldn’t it be preposterous to claim that men must exist for their plumbing, not the plumbing for the men?”
Ayn Rand- ‘We the Living’
Reviewed by Matt Keleher
One can imagine that privation, and uncertainty compounded by the ever-present threat of state sanctioned force would make the simple act of living a tremendous hardship – if not impossible. Yet some possess an immutable sense of life, which can be extinguished only as they draw their final breath; nothing can match the resilience of the human spirit at its best.
Kira Argounova, the young heroine in We the Living is the possessor of one such spirit. The story begins in 1922 as the Argounovas, a bourgeois family make a cramped train journey to Petrograd (later Leningrad) to stay with relatives. We learn of their misfortunes: the family’s factory and assets had been seized during the Russian Revolution; the once wealthy Argounovas are now struggling to scrape a living.
Scarcity pervades the city; citizens subsist on a staple diet of millet and whatever scant commodities happen to be available…that is, unless they are able to find favour with the ruling party. The family are made to pay an exorbitant price for rent, due to their aristocratic background. While others around her pay lip service to the Soviet State for the sake of expediency, Kira refuses. She enrols at the institute to study engineering:
“It’s the only profession…for which I don’t have to learn one single lie. Steel is steel. Every other science is someone’s guess, and someone’s wish and many people’s lie.”
She brazenly slights the ‘Internationale’ anthem citing it as the ‘first beautiful thing’ she had noticed about the revolution. A man whom it later emerges is a GPU (State Political Directorate) officer is quick to chide Kira for her remark:
“You must be new here, I’d advise you to be careful.”
“Our stairs are slippery and there are four floors to climb, so be careful when you come to arrest me.”
“Are you exceedingly brave…or just stupid?”
“I’ll let you find that out.”
While watching an imported American film, Kira scoffs haughtily at its state mandated censorship. Often outspoken and a strident individualist she is drawn to Leo Kovalensky – another disillusioned member of the bourgeois, with whom she kindles an affair. Leo is later diagnosed with incipient tuberculosis and Kira vies to save his life. To do this, she seeks the affection of Andrei Taganov, a political idealist with connections within the party.
As living conditions worsen, all three are implicated in a bleak struggle, which pits the individuals who cherish life against those fervent to destroy it. The theme of the struggle of the spirited individual against the collective is pervasive throughout the novel and would also feature prominently in Ayn Rand’s later works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
In spite of its political and philosophical underpinnings, We the Living is at its heart a tautly plotted thriller that will keep readers guessing until its final page. While my personal favourite from Rand’s work is The Fountainhead (a book I’ll be reviewing for a later blog) I would recommend We the Living as a starting point, due to its comparative brevity to her later, mature works.
Did you know?
We the Living was pirated by an Italian film company who produced a film adaptation of Rands’ novel in 1942 without her consent. The film was released in two separate parts, Noi Vivi (We the Living) and Addio Kira (Farewell Kira).
Watch the film’s trailer here:
Have you read this book? Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments box.