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

Standard
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa review
book review, Books

Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

I think I’ve recovered enough from the devastating effects of this beautiful novel to finally share my review with you guys. I mean, I’m going to do my best, but this incredible piece of fiction just does so much with such a gentle touch that I barely know where to begin. Here we go.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Length: 288 pages

Publisher: Harvill Secker

Other bits: translated by Stephen Snyder; 2019 National Book Award finalist; New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year

Synopsis

There’s a nameless island somewhere in a nameless sea where things – and sometimes, people – disappear. It starts off small, with things like hats and ribbons. Then a little bigger, as inhabitants are forced to say goodbye to birds, roses, even books. And the Memory Police are there to *ahem* oversee the disappearances. But there are some who can’t forget, and that fact alone puts them and their loved ones in danger.

When a young novelist learns that her editor and friend, R, is at risk of being picked up by the Memory Police, she comes up with a plan to keep him safe right under the floorboards of her home. As the world around them seems to fall away one day at a time, they hold on tighter than every to her writing as a lifeline to the past and their own existence.

My thoughts

In a word: devastating. One of those rare books that whack you so hard over the head with the feels that you need a week or so to recover emotionally before getting into your next read. Ogawa’s novel traverses a wide range of themes, but if I had to describe the whole book in a teeny tiny nutshell I’d say it’s a perfect narrative representation of loss in its myriad forms.

We’re dropped into life on this unnamed island where right away, something just isn’t right. You can feel it. Maybe you can’t put your finger on it, but something’s definitely off.

The island is stirred up after a disappearance. People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. There are regrets and a certain sadness, and we try to comfort one another. If it’s a physical object that has been disappeared, we gather the remnants up to burn, or bury, or toss into the river. But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days.

The Memory Police

As you settle into what you’ll soon discover is quite an unsettling novel, you’ll realise that this is the same “can’t put my finger on it” sense of unease that the characters experience whenever something is disappeared from the island.

Disappeared from the island? What? Huh?

Enter, the Memory Police. Men in sharp uniforms with even sharper jawlines and zero mercy. When something disappears, most of the inhabitants dispose of and forget about that thing without much thought; but there are some islanders who don’t forget the things that the Memory Police disappear. And that very fact puts a target on their backs.

The narrative contains a story-within-a-story; the protagonist is herself a writer in the middle of a novel about a young typist who loses her voice. This sub-narrative becomes entangled with her life, starting off as a gentle love story and mutating into something far more sinister as things go from bad to worse in her world and more things – and people – are disappearing.

Above all, this is a story about loss. Loss of people from our lives, be it through death or distance, loss of memory, loss of things to the wear and tear that comes with time; loss of entire body parts, loss of movement, loss of liberty.

So…yeah. Please read this book. It’ll ruin you for a week, then you won’t be able to stop talking about it for ages.

-Kelly

Standard