” Kira Arguonova entered Petrograd on the threshold of a box car. She stood straight, motionless, with the graceful indifference of a traveler on a luxurious ocean liner, with an old blue suit of faded cloth, with slender sunburned legs and no stockings. She had an old piece of plaid silk around her neck and short tousled hair, and a stockingcap with a bright yellow tassel. She had a calm mouth and slightly widened eyes witha defiant, enraptured, solemnly and fearfully expectant look of a warrior who is entering a strange city and is not quite sure whether he is entering it as a conqueror or a captive.” — Ayn Rand, ‘We the living’.
So starts the introduction of Ayn Rand’s first hero, Kira Alexandrovna Arguonova. All of 16 years old when she enters her city, to the ruins of her bourgeois life. The State has nationalized her father’s business and their property. The city that she knew has changed, but she is the only one in her family who sees the hope and possibilities that lie amid the ruins and the Red posters proclaiming ‘Proletarians of the world, unite!’. She is also the only one who’s dream is to become an engineer and build bridges of aluminium.
‘We the living’, Rand’s first novel, talks about the struggle of Man against the State (to quote the book). The State here represents any authoritarian rule, any dictatorship in any country. Like all her later books, ‘We the living’ talks about life and the essence of being alive. This novel can be seen as a precursor to ‘Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas Shrugged’, her theory that man must live for himself alone. Kira, who strongly believes in it, finds it difficult to live life by the terms dictated by the Communist State which demanded, not independence, but self sacrifice. The other characters in the book, each convey a tenet towards this theory and it finally comes together during the climax when the two most important men in Kira’s life, Leo and Andrei, stand a face-off (or face a stand-off?) – where both the men are wrong, and both are right.
The beauty of Rand’s novels is the image of the hero. Be it Kira or Howard Roark or John Galt. The character is just so awe-inspiring, that it continues to haunt you even days after you’ve read the book. ‘We the living’ is the first and only book I’ve ever read in my life so far that made me cry. The pain, the emotions and the conflicts in Kira’s life are conveyed so beautifully, in a typical Rand-ian way that one completely identifies with it. It is like watching a movie or even as if it is happening in front of you to see. The words hit you that hard, and leaves an imprint for a long time to come.
‘We the living’ is different from Atlas and Fountainhead in the way that this is not a happy novel. All the trademarks of Rand are there, yet the human element is more pronounced in ‘We the living’. The heroes in this novel are more human than her later heroes. As Peikoff says in his foreword to the centennial edition of the book, ‘Kira, though not intended as a self-portrait, is Ayn Rand intellectually and morally; she has all of Ayn Rand’s ideas and values.’ This is probably as close as we can get to the person behind the genius of Ayn Rand.
One would have read a lot of books on life in Soviet Russia during the times of the Revolution, but this book is a true showcase to the bitter and painful reality of life, especially for people like Kira and Leo who believe in living life on their own terms, for themselves. The poverty, the hunger, the rations and the Communist propaganda – the ugly truth about the Utopian dream that the Marxist leaders promised to the masses. Misplaced ideals and a directionless move towards what they think is a fair and just society, combined with this heady feeling one gets with brute power in their hands brings Russia (or USSR to be more precise) to its knees, or rather the people are brought down to their knees. The long lines in front of cooperative stores to get their daily rations of bread, oil and sugar, the stringent rules for non-proletarians or the erstwhile bourgeois and the all pervading Reds paint a grim picture of how rotten life was for everyone under the hammer and the sickle. And the only reason it is so vivid is because the author wrote it from her own life, the life that she lived and breathed when she was a citizen of Russia.
Every book of Ayn Rand that I have read has touched me, my life in ways even I cannot fathom. It brings this feeling of incompleteness that I may have lived this many years without a purpose, without an ideal that could be life-changing if only one had the will to stick to it in the face of adversity. It takes a lot to follow your mind and your heart, and be willing to die standing up for your values and beliefs. On second thoughts, living by one’s convictions is far more difficult that having to die for it. It takes a hero to do that. Not just any hero, an Ayn Rand hero.
Like Howard Roark. Like Francisco D’Anconia, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart. Like John Galt. Like Kira Arguonova.
Photo: Taken by me, a day before I finished the book.