We by Yevgeny Zamyatin review summary
book review, Books

Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I pinky swear that the next book I review won’t be from the dystopian genre. I can promise that because I’m reading Normal People right now (absolutely hooked on that, by the way). Anyway, my fellow bookworms, here we are: a snappy review of We by Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin. Let’s do this.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Length: 226 pages

Publisher: Penguin Books

Other bits: this edition translated by Clarence Brown; first published in 1924 by E.P. Dutton Inc, translated by Gregory Zilboorg; Zamyatin lived in Newcastle upon Tyne for a time while working at the shipyards, overseeing the construction of icebreakers.

Synopsis

Zamyatin’s We is set in the twenty-sixth century AD in the OneState: a totalitarian society completely based on rationality and mathematics. This see-through city of straight lines and glass is ruled by the Benefactor and shielded from the natural world by a massive Green Wall – which becomes so prominent it feels like a character in its own right.

The OneState is inhabited not by citizens, but by numbers. I mean they’re human beings, but they’re called numbers; our protagonist is D-503 – that’s what the ‘ancients’ would have called his ‘name’.

D-503, like the other numbers of OneState, is marching through life devoid of passion and creativity when we meet him – but that all changes when he finds he’s come down with a terrible affliction: he has a soul. Oh dear.

My thoughts

When I say life in the OneState is regimented, I mean it. Everyone lives in strict adherence to The Table – a state-approved (and enforced) schedule where even free time and sex is pencilled in at the exact same time as the rest of the state. That’s kind of where the name of the novel comes from – there’s no I, no individuality, here. There is only the we, the collective, and deviating from that isn’t exactly an option. Totalitarian states aren’t too keen on that whole ‘freedom’ thing.

In this glass city of uniformity, freedom is seen by the overwhelming majority as something negative. It’s synonymous with unhappiness, and the Benefactor is indeed benevolent for having saved them from such unhappiness by providing the strictest rules and stripping back privacy and choice to their barest of bones.

None of those complications about good and evil: Everything is very simple, childishly simple – Paradise! The Benefactor, the Machine, the Cube, the Gas Bell, the Guardians: All those things represent good, all that is sublime, splendid, noble, elevated, crystal pure. Because that is what protects our nonfreedom, which is to say, our happiness.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

And to be quite honest, I’m certain that this blind adherence to and comfort in rules is something all governments want. Don’t get me wrong – we need laws and rules to function as a society – that’s something that happens wherever humans form communities, government or no. But we must always question authority and seek to hold those in power accountable.*

*Yes, I was a very stubborn child/teenager. Spare a thought for my parents.

One thing that really struck me was how, despite living in a world where having a soul is considered a terminal illness, the language employed by our narrator is beautiful:

On the corner in the white fog. Blood. Cut with a sharp knife. It was her lips.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

The language seems to become more poetic as the novel progresses, reflecting the D-503’s gradual realisation that he has such things as a soul, imagination, dreams, lust, love, and so on. As his world fills with these almost-extinct artefacts of humanity, the pages he writes become more vibrant, more passionate, more powerful in their expression. Until he’s forced to bring his account to an end, of course, but I won’t reveal anything about that. I hate spoilers myself.

Anyway, that’s it from me, ladies and gents. If you love dystopian literature, this one’s a must-read, not just because it inspired other greats and makes you, the read, think about your own freedoms and status as a citizen – but because it feels so timeless and is written (and translated) so well.

Have you read this piece of Russian literature? Tell me what you think!

-Kelly

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top 10 books to read
Books, Lists of Love

Top 10 Books on my To-Read List

As a self-confessed book-hoarder, bookworm, and bibliophile, having an out-of-control list of books I want to read is a part of the job. Another thing we book-fiends revel in is talking, writing, and gushing about books until we hear the gentle click of the kettle as it comes to a boil. Enough chit chat – on to the books!

1 | Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I’m utterly obsessed with vikings and Norse mythology, and I think Neil Gaiman is just fantastic. When I hit Waterstones in Newcastle and saw this beautiful hardback edition of a book that merged those two things together, I just had to have it.

2 | Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest

Now this is actually a collection of poems by English spoken-word poet, Kate Tempest. I only really started to appreciate poetry when I was reading for my degree in English, but since then I’ve more than made up for it by making time to read good poetry, especially by writers who are still alive and kicking today.

3 | Event by Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek is a brilliant philosopher who, yes, I discovered at university but want to learn more about. Enter Event. 

4 | The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

After falling hopelessly in love with The Great Gatsby and dealing with the inevitable book-hangover that followed, I’m ready for my next dose of Fitzgerald. Let’s say it – the man has a knack for badass titles.

5 | A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes

A colleague of mine with excellent taste in books recommended this to me, and I’m going to trust her completely on this.

6 | The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Shame on me for not having read this already, I know. I’m sorry, please forgive me. But I’m here now, and I’m ready to enter Discworld.

7 | Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of those writers who make you feel like you’re sitting down for a chat with your ridiculously good-humoured friend who’s also casually clever.

8 | East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This one is one of the heavier reads that I challenged myself to read a year ago. Ish. I’ve obviously failed. But I love John Steinbeck and will consider this blog post a promise that I will read it this year. Hold me to it, guys.

9 | Underworld London by Catharine Arnold

I love a bit of history – especially when it’s mixed in with some gritty crime. The full title is Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City. Need I say more?

10 | The Elder Edda translated by Andy Orchard

Ah, we end where we began – with norse mythology! The Elder Edda is a collection of anonymous, Old Norse poems alive with the culture and history of the people who created them. It was actually one of the texts that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so it gets my vote twice.

Have you read any of these? Let me know what you thought in a comment below.

Until next time!

Kelly

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