The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 21, 2003

Moral allegory of early Soviet writing
M. L. Raina

The Life of the Automobile
by Ilya Ehrenburg. Translated from the Russian by Joachim Neugroschel.
Serpent’s Tail Press, London and New York.
Pages IX + 209. $ 12.99.

IT was during those adrenalised glory days of ‘Hindi-Russi Bhai-Bhai’ that Ilya Ehrenburg, addressing a gathering at Delhi University, became starry-eyed about life in the Soviet Union. When students asked him why Russians couldn’t afford a car while most Americans drove freely, he replied, "The mere possession of a car means nothing, all that matters is what you talk inside." At that time everything American, from hamburgers to hot dogs and Hollywood, was anathema to the Soviets, the high point being Khrushchev’s outburst against Can-Can in 1959. The car represented bourgeois decadence, no less, as Ehrenburg reminded his readers in essay after essay.

I recalled this exchange as I read The Life of the Automobile, a neo-surrealistic short work just translated into English but published in the late 20s of the last century. It is not about the automobile industry in America, but about its impact on the moral, political and social life of the West as a whole, seen from the lofty pedestal of the Bolshevik utopia. The book is almost forgotten now, but on first publication it confirmed the author’s reputation as a writer of exceptional gifts. Its obvious literary qualities still invite appreciative attention.


Not exactly a novel in the accepted sense of the term, this book can be described both as an autobiographical fantasy and factual fiction, a genre made popular by many contemporary American novelists. Historical personalities such as Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Andre Citreon and lesser pioneers of automobile industry go in and out of its pages, as do victims of the first automobile crash and the early strikes in car factories.

Ilya Ehrenburg was somewhat of an enigma within the Soviet literary establishment. A bohemian among pug-faced literary apparatchiks living his journalistic opportunities in Paris and other European capitals, he comes across as equally a servile apologist and licensed critic of the regime. Novelist, newspaperman, memorialist and a lucky survivor of Stalin’s anti-Semitic cleansing campaign, Ehrenburg is now mostly remembered for his voluminous memoirs and, especially, for a stinging satire on the 20s, Julio Jurenito, published in 1922, five years before Automobile came out.

In that book he excoriated Western capitalism, communist bureaucracy, war and the last century’s other festering ills in a tone of dandyish cynicism and mocking despair. Among other symbols of the age, the automobile too came in for acid comments: "the sense of exultation that religion can exploit is aroused in modern man by the sensation of rapid motion`85the train, the motor car, the aeroplane, "muses Julio, a.k.a The Teacher. Predictably, the book became a moral allegory of the times just as Candide did in Voltaire’s age.

Though it lacks the mordancy of Julio Jurenito, Automobile exhibits the same penchant for caricature and ridicule that made Jurenito a minor classic in its genre. It is a novel of the consumer dream, of the ever-expanding desire of human beings for a life of luxury and speed made possible by scientific inventions. Also, it is a detailed catalogue of the inequities of the capitalist system, a Luddite dirge on the sinister role played by the car in vanquishing a supposedly stable way of life.

It begins matter-of-factly, recounting the ordinary life of Bernard, a day- dreamer caught in the thuds and thrusts of the speed revolution and its attendant troubles. It is the movies that make him restless and drive him to buy a car. But soon he hurtles towards his death: "the linnets warbled, and the lavender was sweet and fragrant. Car No. 180A 74—iron splinters, glass shards, a lump of warm flesh-lay unstirring beneath the midday sun."

There is a deadpan quality about this chapter. By simply recording the number of the smashed car, Ehrenburg brings out the pervasive inhumanity of the new revolution. The writing is imagistic, mimicking the speed of the machine and recording the fleeting contours of the objects around. The book succeeds in blending rapid observation with a somewhat gawky leap-frogging style.

The opening chapter builds up expectations of a fast-paced linear narrative, but undercuts them as chapters follow one another. Very few characters develop rounded personalities, yet all of them stop this side of becoming mere totems for contemporary ills. More than anything else, they are seen here from the inside, their human follies never slurred over.

In his foreword to the book, Ehrenburg notes that although "the story was not invented by the author`85the author felt justified in offering his own explanation for the actions of his characters." What we get is Ehrenburg’s personal justification for depicting his historical characters in a montage of close-ups and fade-outs strung along an intellectual structure but a structureless narrative line.

The pioneers of the car revolution, Citreon, Ford and the lesser inventors, remain vulnerable as humans even as they steer the revolution to its logical end. Since Ehrenburg is concerned about the individual’s fate under capitalism—of which the car is a manifest symbol—larger ideological abstractions are given a short shrift. Like Askasov and Gogol, he holds up the individual to his probing scrutiny.

An experimental book in an age of fertile literary experimentation, Automobile is a curious aberration in early Soviet writing. Unlike the officially permitted staple, it serves up a bitter soupcon of scepticism.