Review: Evgeny Zamyatin’s We

671b6acad6c319290bff8b16554ebe65Evgeny Zamyatin’s We was one of the first novels banned by the newly-formed Soviet censorship bureau in 1921 and wasn’t published in the USSR until 1988.  In other words, you know it’s good.
Following the Two Hundred Years’ War, the world’s population is reduced to .2% of what it was.  Society lives under The Great Benefactor, living life according to strict schedules.  The only reprieve is scheduled copulation, an event dictated by the One State, during which shades may be lowered.  Nature is banished behind the green wall, and most walls of apartments and workplaces are made of glass (perhaps a nod to Bentham’s Panopticon).  In other words, the citizens of the One State are under constant surveillance by The Guardians.  Citizens march in sync and wear identical clothing.  There are no given names—only numbers.  Our narrator is D-503, a builder of the Integral, a spaceship meant to conquer extra-terrestial planets and institute a similar style of civilization.  A few days prior to the launch, D-503 begins to keep something of a journal so that he can inform readers on distant planets about the world from which the Integral originated.

In short, Evgeny Zamyatin’s We is an intriguing novel.  Preceding Brave New World by a decade and 1984 by 28 years, We is sometimes regarded as the grandfather of the dystopian novel, and I find it a shame that it’s not more widely read when it seems to delve much more into the philosophicalwhen it poses so many more interesting questions than 1984 or Brave New World.  Our narrator is a mathematician and builder of the Integral, referring to everything in scientific and empirical terms.  He then meets I-330, and it’s then that things begin to interesting and D-503 begins to think…imagine that!  To think!  Oh, but that’s a crime in the One State—an imagination is the worst thing one could possess.

An alternate cover embracing several ideas in the novel, from The Green Wall to constant surveillance.
An alternate cover embracing several ideas in the novel, from The Green Wall to constant surveillance.

Aside from the inside/outside battle that wages in D-503, society attempts to keep nature beyond the Green Wall, a wild, uncertain place beyond the “Eden” of society.  The novel provides an interesting twist, as The One Society is fiercely atheistic and logical, so it’s certainly not a Biblical Eden, but there are several allusions to the Bible throughout the text.  Some also suggest that We predicted the rise of Stalinism, and there are certainly Stalinist elements in The One Society and The Great Benefactor.

On the political side of things, Zamyatin was initially a supporter of the Communist party, but he came to be critical of Soviet rule due to their strict policies, ultimately leaving the USSR for France in 1931.  We was actually smuggled out of Russia to the West for publication after it was banned.

I’d love to say a lot more about the plot and its contents and implications, but, of course, I don’t want to ruin it for any prospective readers.  Still, I’d like to look at one or two quotes from the novel.
 Every true poet is inevitable a Columbus.  America existed for centuries before Columbus, but only Columbus succeeded in discovering it.  The multiplication table existed for centuries before R-13 [A fellow citizen, a poet], yet it was only RI-13 who found a new Eldorado in the virginal forests of figures.  And indeed, is there any happiness wiser, more unclouded than the happiness of this miraculous world?  Steel rusts.  The ancient God created the old man, capable of erring—hence he erred himself.  The multiplication table is wiser and more absolute than the ancient God: it never—do you realize the full meaning of the world?—it never errs. (66-67)
Part of what I love about We is Zamyatin’s use of logic.  He crafts effective rhetoric that really makes me pause and think, “well, you know, that is an interesting point…”, and it makes such an effective argument in a text like We, where the narrator is an unquestioning subscriber to his world.  Yet, when he describes his world in terms entirely normal and enticing to him…
Our poets no longer soar in the empyrean; they have down to earth; they stride beside us to the stern mechanical March of the Music Plant.  Their lyre encompasses the morning scraping of electric toothbrushes and the dread crackle of the sparks in the Benefactor’s Machine; the majestic echoes of the Hymn to the One State and the intimate tinkle of the gleaming crystal chamberpot; the exciting rustle of dropping shades, the merry voices of the latest cookbook, and the scarcely audible whisper of the listening membranes in the streets.
     Our gods are here, below, with us—in the office, the kitchen, the workshop, the toilet; the gods have become like us. Ergo, we have become as gods, And we shall come to you, my unknown readers on the distant planet, to make your life as divinely rational and precise as ours. (68-69).
We can’t help but recoil in horror, yet, our freedoms, the very ones we take for Yevgeny-Zamyatingranted and enjoy every day, are the ones that D-503 recoils at.  But it’s exactly this sort of prose that makes me really enjoy We.  Zamyatin creates a convincing narrator who is fully immersed in his world, and it’s this kind of dedication to writing, to fully fleshing out a character and his world, that I find so interesting, especially as the novel slowly begins to unravel the narrator’s sense of self.  Zamyatin demonstrates an incredible amount of skill in depicting D-503’s psychological development throughout the novel.
There is something very H.G. Wells about We, and it was interesting to find out that Zamyatin had edited some of Wells’ work when it was translated into Russian.  It makes sense, then, that there is a Wellsian influence.
Really, there is so much going on in We—there’s a lot to think about well beyond the scope of a blog review, hence my rambling post.  I whole-heartedly recommend the novel.
As of March 2011, the original text of We is in the public domain, so what’s your excuse for not reading it?
I leave you with this quote by Zamyatin:
True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics.
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