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We the Living (Signet)

We the Living - Ayn Rand Just be yourself.Hasn't that been parents' advice to kids since the dawn of time? Don't try to impress people by putting on a show. Don't just tell people what you think they want to hear. Be who you are, and those who appreciate your genuine character will be true friends. I think this is the only book where Ayn Rand is true to herself, without putting on the big ├╝berconservative show which makes her later works so irritating. What's that? You think maybe Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead represent Ayn's true self? Well, I can't prove you wrong, but I don't think that's the case. We the Living doesn't smack of ulterior motives the way those other books do. It contains no larger-than-life robberbaron supermen, no fifteen-page speeches, and no fortunes built on miracle inventions. Where Altas Shrugged was really just a platform to espouse Rand's "philosophy" of Objectivism, We the Living is refreshingly 100% Objectivism-free (see my review of Anthem for more details). Better still, it has authentic three-dimensional characters who seem like they might be actual people Ayn knew. This is historical fiction, after all. Many of these events actually happened.We the Living tells the semi-autobiographical story of college-aged Kira Argounova, whose upper middle class family flees St. Petersburg during the 1917 revolution, and then returns in 1922, trying to make a new life for themselves within the communist system. When they show up at the doorstep of their former townhouse off Nyevsky Prospekt, they discover it has been seized and divided into a multiple-family dwelling. They are advised to apply for a license to live in one of the units if they feel a particular attachment to the old homestead, but as part of the hated former petty bourgeoisie, they should be aware their chances are slim. A similar scene occurs in Doctor Zhivago (but in DZ, the family actually obtains residence in their old home). It seems either such occurances were common, or perhaps Pasternak was influenced by We the Living. Food is rationed. Work is obtained only through a state agency, once the applicant has jumped through the many hoops needed to obtain a work license. Since political loyalty is valued more than ability, Kira discovers that many of her least-promising former classmates have risen to positions of authority over her. They hang around the city's most fashionable bars, dressed to the nines in leather finery unavailable to citizens outside the Party. They smoke tobacco the proles could never get their hands on, and enjoy luxuries like fresh fruit, which Kira secretly covets. Reading through these parts, one can practically feel the resentment rising in Ayn's blood as she writes it. Through a paper-thin veneer of fiction, anybody can see this is her story, narrated very personally, with a ring of truth her other novels lack.Consider how Ayn's life closely mirrors Argounova's: Ayn's father had owned a profitable pharmacy in St Petersburg before the revolution, just as Kira's father owned a successful textiles factory. Both Ayn and Kira's families fled St. Petersburg to the Crimea in 1917, fearing for their daughters' safety. As I said, this novel contains events which actually happened to real people.Ayn and Kira both returned to St.Petersburg (now Petrograd) in 1922, to find the social and political changes described in this book. They each managed to enroll at Petrograd University, after considerable bureaucratic resistance, and both found their career prospects after graduation to be severely limited, due to the continued stigma of their fathers' pre-Revolutionary social status. While both tried to leave the Soviet Union, only Ayn made it to America. Kira died at the border, which demands some explanation. Why did Ayn make the choice as an author to deny Kira a life in the West? Ayn always had a weakness for melodrama; did she kill Kira for the pure intense tragedy of it? Did she think it would put greater empahsis on the injustices of the Soviet system? Why else end the novel with a sympathetic character both bleeding and freezing to death, alone in the dark, in the middle of nowhere? It seems a bit too cruel, even for a novel whose entire point is outrage and cruelty. If you enjoy deriding Ayn Rand's wooden characters or her preachy, didactic writing style, this book won't be much fun for you. But if you're a more thoughtful type, who is curious about where her ideas came from, this is the book that tells it all. Sure, We the Living has hints of the moral certitude that makes Atlas Shrugged so shrill and irksome, but the story is heartfelt and the characters believable. Unfortunately, this best of Rand's novels also happens to be her first, so maybe she should have quit while she was ahead.