by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Confession: Though I consider myself somewhat well-read, I’ve managed to skip over what we might consider the seminal works of dystopian fiction. You know: 1984, Brave New World, that kind of stuff. Though I read and enjoyed Animal Farm, its primary impact was to make me hungry for all things pig.
For my twenty-fourth birthday, however, one of my friends gave me a bunch of used books (shout out to my man Zeph), one of which was called We. I didn’t know what it was, and I’d never heard of its author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, but it turns out that he was a big influence on both Huxley and Orwell. So I was intrigued.
I think it’s important to remember when reading We that it’s among the first of its kind. Dystopia always seemed, to me at least, a genre that must walk a fine line. Writers generally want to use their works to make a point about something, and this often makes for very, uh, not-subtle reading. The famous seventy-page speech from Atlas Shrugged comes to mind, though I’ll admit I haven’t read that tome. Animal Farm was a pretty overt warning about the dangers of collectivization and talking pigs. So as you can imagine, there are times when Zamyatin maybe goes overboard in depicting what happens to society when freedom is taken away. I can’t blame him, though. This was written only a couple of years after the Bolshevik Revolution, when the relationship between the individual and the state was probably on many Russians’ minds.
For being somewhat of a trailblazer, though, We definitely gets a lot of things right. Zamyatin structures the book as a series of historical records in which the narrator, D-503, wishes to extoll the virtues of the OneState. (Individuals are given numbers rather than names; seemingly, consonants are used for men, vowels for women.) His records will be placed along with other artifacts on the spaceship Integral, the Builder of which is D himself, to spread the OneState’s philosophy to other worlds. His first record, only about a page and a half long, captured my attention immediately, as D likens his project to childbirth, in ways both relatable and shocking to the reader. Zamyatin thus sets the book up as a juxtaposition between the familiar and unfamiliar, between D writing for himself and for his presumably ‘unenlightened’ audience.
This feeling, that D-503 has his feet in two different worlds, is what gives We its drama and humor. For example, D has only a vague understanding of normal human emotion, resulting in awkward and hilarious attempts to explain what he’s feeling. Most frequently, he tries to use calculus to describe what’s going on in his head, which often left me confused. When he does begin to catch the disease of ‘imagination’ he starts using more poetical language for emotions such as love and jealousy. This is at least as awkward as the scientific jargon, resulting in some pretty strange and indecipherable passages.
Though I’m reticent to suggest that Zamyatin goes overboard with this intentional confusion, his style doesn’t make it easy on the reader. Having confusing passages is not a problem per se, but I’ll admit that I had trouble figuring out what was actually going on during certain scenes. D clearly has mixed feelings about his growing opposition to the OneState and its Benefactor- in his more fickle moments, he describes these as a sickness and a madness- and this manifests itself in the way he describes his experiences. Zamyatin uses D’s confusing records to great effect. Whereas record 1 is clear and unambiguous in its glorification of the OneState, the next 39 records are a mess of styles, narratives, and feelings, putting the reader in on edge; putting us in D’s shoes, so to speak. This is effective, in that we end up as confused as D must be, but I wonder if this narrative chaos might have been just a bit too much.
That We depicts a protagonist’s internal struggle with hope and cynicism shouldn’t surprise us too much, as this seems to be a common theme in Russian literature. Zamyatin takes it a step further, by reflecting this battle structurally and stylistically, making for an often clunky novel. All things considered, though, this is a 200 page book, and its brevity complements its frequent opacity. So I don’t think Zamyatin is confusing us just to be an asshole, like Lady Gaga in the meat dress; I think that he’s applying the Russian literary tradition to the new paradigm, and he’s created a complicated novel for a complicated time.
Some of you may be wondering, “How did a book so critical of an all-powerful state ever get published in the Soviet Union?” Good question. Interesting answer: according to my translation’s introduction, We was actually first published in English in 1924, then circulated around Europe in other languages. The original manuscript was only published in Russian in 1952, in New York rather than Russia. Unfortunately, Zamyatin’s blunt criticism of his government was not lost on the USSR, and he was exiled from his home country before his novel was allowed to be published. It only came out there in 1988, when they’d pretty much had enough of the whole Communism thing, and when Zamyatin was long dead.
I found this history fascinating, not just because it seems to be one of the first, if not the first, books to be banned by the Soviet Union. There are a couple instances where subtleties of language seem crucial. The several meanings of integral seem pretty, uh, integral to the plot. (Sorry.) Similarly, the character who introduces D-503 to individualism is called I-330, or just I. This definitely isn’t coincidence, and it makes me wonder whether the original Russian text has these nuances, as well as which Russian nuances are left out of our English version. Unfortunately, the introduction to my edition did not address this, though it gave many other interesting details about the novel’s history.
(Side note: They should put introductions at the back of the book, rather than the front. They often give away details of the plot, and they’re pretty boring if you haven’t already read the novel. If you must include one, put it at the end, and call it a postroduction.)
Zamyatin was both an early Soviet dissident and the creator of a genre, so cut him some slack if We is a little rough. This quality is intentional, and doesn’t detract from the power that the novel still holds.