Ilya – the man who survived Uncle…
Published in Labour Worker, October 1967.
Ilya Ehrenburg, who died at the beginning of September, will be remembered mainly as one of the “liberal” figures of Russian literature; a man who was always one step to the left of the official line but careful not to make it two. Unfortunately, the dominant feature of all the changing phases and theories of Soviet literature has been overwhelming boredom.
However, back in 1921, Ehrenburg wrote a very different sort of book. The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito, set in the last days of the First World War, tells the story of the wanderings through Europe of a strange, anarchistic Mexican and his seven disciples, each of a different nationality, ending up in Russia just after the Revolution. Jurenito, by ironically questioning all humane, idealistic values, shows up the destructive nature of capitalism in decline. In its mixture of harsh satire and fantasy the book is almost worthy of a Swift or an Orwell. There are prophetic glimpses of war, fascism and anti-semitism in the years ahead. The Russian Revolution is seen as opening up prospects of great hope and of great suffering.
Julio Jurenito was not published in Russia (and scarcely elsewhere) from the twenties to the fifties. That Ehrenburg lost the sparkle of genius is a minor tragedy reflecting the greater tragedies of the period. But if Ehrenburg deserves a memorial, it is that Julio Jurenito should still be read.