Having first read Fountainhead followed by Atlas Shrugged, We The Living came as a tragic jolt I was entirely unprepared for. Ayn Rand believed in the strength of man and his ideals. It was inevitable that Howard Roark and John Galt would survive and succeed because of who they were and who they refused to be. I expected a similar journey in We The Living and that was my undoing.
“Andrei, did you like the opera?”
“Andrei, do you see what you’re missing?”
“I don’t think I do, Kira. It’s all rather silly. And useless.”
“Can’t you enjoy things that are useless, merely because they are beautiful?”
“No. But I enjoyed it.”
“No. The way you listened to it.”
In most ways, We The Living is easier to relate to because the characters are fallible. Characters who can make wrong choices and are not able to overcome all the inane obstacles life presents before us. But such characters were rarely present in Ayn Rand’s later novels. Such novelty only exists in her first novel. Fresh from her heartbreaking experiences out of Soviet Russia. She had witnessed life in a communist state, escaped it and longed to show the world how collectivism broke its citizens. I have tried to read Leo Tolstoy and gotten entangled in the names and meandered in the tales. In contrast, the Russia Ayn Rand shows in this book is direct and awful. Worse than Big Brother and 1984 because it is not fiction. Such a government exists and takes a twisted form out of what must be a philosophy proposed for the good of its people.
“You see, you and I, we believe in life. But you want to fight for it, to kill for it, even to die–for life. I only want to live it.”
I read through the beautiful story of Kira who wanted simply to live, who was in love, and who believed in the strength of people. She fell for Leo who was an embodiment of everything that Kira instinctively knew was right in a man. Right or not, she remained irrationally in love. She made a friend in Andrei with instinct as a guide to a kindred spirit. With every misfortune and tribulation that these characters faced, I read faster, eager and arrogant with certainty that Kira could not fail. Ayn Rand would not let her.
“Well, I always know what I want. And when you know what you want–you go toward it. Sometimes you go very fast, and sometimes only an inch a year. Perhaps you feel happier when you go fast. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten the difference long ago, because it really doesn’t matter, so long as you move.”
It did not all magically fall into place. Situations got bleaker, people physically and morally shattered. Ayn Rand’s writing never fails to move me or make me question and rethink life, but at the end of the book, I was not satisfied. How could the hero have given up? Why did the good guy have to lose in the end? Why did the protagonist not break free of the system?
Once I read through the introduction to book and Ayn Rand’s notes I could finally understand and appreciate the thought process behind the failures of Kira, Andrei and Leo.
Ayn Rand claims this book is as close to an autobiography as we could ever get. The situations are not hers, but the ideals of Kira are. When its Man against the State in the world and times of the Soviet Revolution there was no way that anyone would survive. This was not the America of Dagny Taggart, so the heroes could not escape their end. That, to me, is the key to accepting We The Living.
“It’s a curse, you know, to be able to look higher than you’re allowed to reach.”
Leo who was an aristocrat strived to not succumb to the oppressions of the state. Kira loves him because he was individualistic and independent in thought. He did not bend, but he was not strong enough to remain unbroken. It was specially painful to see his fall because of how much he meant to Kira. What she did for him and for all his lost potential.
“Kira, the highest thing in man is not his god. It’s that in him which knows the reverence due a god. And you, Kira, are my highest reverence…”
Andrei was an exceptionally written hero. He believed strongly in the cause of communism and was introduced as a possible antagonist. Only, it wasn’t long before Kira realised that Andrei was on the wrong side, but for the right reasons. He was following the movement for himself and that set him apart from the mass. It felt wrong to see Kira betray Andrei for Leo’s sake. Leo, who was undeserving of all that love by the end. But love does not know reason and Andrei turned out to be a man of character. When he realised she did not love him, he had unintentionally hurt the one she revered and all that he stood for was a farce, he gave up. He was convinced he could make a difference by being part of the soviet movement, but the government he believed in never did exist. The government that did exist did not need a man like Andrei. He was disillusioned and alone in agony. He killed himself.
“Did it ever occur to you,” asked Kira, “that I may be here for the very unusual, unnatural reason of wanting to learn a work I like only because I like it?”
Finally, Kira. What a wasteful end, I thought. A girl who had done as she pleased, with steady conviction. Who was ready to leave her family and also support them when needed. One favourite theme of mine was her wish to not have Leo see her sweating and toiling in a kitchen. She wanted him to see her at her best. This thought process is so different from all I know that am not even sure why it seems comprehensible and appeals to me.
Kira made a terrible choice for the man she could not save. She fought, but also did not join the fight. Leo left her, Andrei died. She planned her escape, reached the border and got shot by an insignificant comrade of Russia. It could have been a hopeful end if she made it out of the country that refused to acknowledge or allow a person freedom to live for themselves. Ayn Rand had managed to escape Russia. Then why not let Kira escape?
“I don’t want to fight for the people, I don’t want to fight against the people, I don’t want to hear of the people. I want to be left alone—to live.”
Ayn Rand explains it in interviews and her notes. Kira remains free and undefeated till the end. She is neither broken nor does she give up. But if she escaped, the reader would take back the message of hope. And there is no hope. In a state where individual right is taken away, no one, even a girl as strong as Kira, can survive or win.
It’s a really old film, but the trailer is worth a watch.. Black and white in all that snow.. How cold is this world.. how people live through it.. I will never know..
Thank you Lisa for the recommendation…