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.
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.
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!