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
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.
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.
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