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We, Eugene Zamiatin, Dutton, 1959, 218 pp. (originally published in 1924)
Note: The name Eugene Zamiatin is an anglicized version; current editions list the name as, variously, Evgenii Zamiatin, Yvegeny Zamyatin, or Yevgeny Zamyatin.
Like most works of art created by people living under Soviet regimes, the history of this book is just as important to understand as its actual content. Make no mistake, We is a stunning book, a statement for the ages about totalitarianism and its effect on the human soul -- stripped of names, stripped of love, and finally, stripped of imagination. Brave New World and 1984 have nothing on We, nothing to brag about at all. It's incredibly chilling to read this passage, written in the early 1920s, which puts a finger on one of the profound evils of the twentieth century: "The same evening I learned that they had led away three Numbers, although nobody speaks aloud about it, or about anything that happened... Conversations deal chiefly with the quick fall of the barometer and the forthcoming change in weather" (156-7). The blood stains are deep on humanity and the neighbours talk about the weather.
Zamiatin himself avoided joining the ranks of the disappeared, but others who spoke less boldly were ground in submission and death. The extensive prefatory matter of the book gives a brief history of Zamiatin's life: an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution in the 1910s, but he was soon disenchanted. By the time he wrote We, he could not publish it in Russian. In 1929, a Russian translation was published, leading to extensive persecution. He wrote a nasty letter to Stalin, and Stalin, rather astonishingly, let Zamiatin leave the country. Idealists had little chance of surviving long (nor did pragmatists, as the recurring purges showed), and Zamiatin was idealist to the core. Here is an excerpt from his letter to Stalin: "'I never concealed what I thought of literary servility, toadyism, and coat changing. I have always thought and I continue to think that such things are as degrading for the writer as they are to the revolution'" (xxiv). Zamiatin left Russia in 1931 for Paris, where he died in 1937.
What is this book, that it caused such a fuss? We is given in the form of written reports by D-503, who might be just another number in a society that considers happiness only possible in the absence of freedom. But he is the gifted mathematician who has made possible the existence of The Integral, the spaceship that will take their culture to other worlds. D is happy, and he knows that this happiness is due to his strict following of the Tables -- everyone wakes up in the glass rooms at the same time, they walk to work four abreast, and they can request a sexual encounter with anyone who they please. At which point the curtains in their rooms can be lowered for half an hour. After the Two Hundred Years War, a Green Wall is erected to keep out the horrors of nature, and at one point, D talks about how flowers are not as beautiful as machines. The Well-Doer is elected unanimously every year, and anyone who strays outside of the Tables earns a fast trip to the Machine of the Well-Doer.
Several things operate to bring D-503 into discord with his society. Interestingly, Zamiatin seems to have the biggest faith in sexual deviance as the cause of conflict between an individual and a repressive system. D tells us early on, with regard to the system in his society: "It is clear that under such circumstances that there is no reason for envy or jealousy" (22). However, almost all of the plot events are driven by these two things, and related emotions. D-503 has had regular assignations with O-90 for three years when the book begins, but he soon falls hard for a woman numbered I-330. I-330 is a revolutionary, and she gradually gets D deeper and deeper into confusion and collaboration. D is desperate for contact with I, and he helps some revolutionaries onboard The Integral, goes outside the Green Wall, and so forth, all to spend more time with her. In the meantime, the woman who handles the paperwork for the assignations in D's building, U, has fallen in love with D. At one point, she even helps him escape a trip to the Machine of the Well-Doer. But D is still infatuated with I, and so the book reads at times like a romance, a story of love and love spurned. The writing makes it something different (which I will discuss in a minute); more importantly, the ending doesn't back down from the implications of totalitarianism. If the ending of 1984 froze your marrow, watch out for the ending of We -- Orwell might have refined Zamiatin's approach, but here is the original in all its raw power.
We can be a difficult book because of D-503. He is a mercurial individual, and the wild swings in his emotional state are enough to disprove the thesis on which his society is based. But everything in the book is mediated through this hallucinatory lens that is D-503; things are intensely felt but sometimes taxing to puzzle through. The vivid imagery that D uses on every page simply doesn't reduce mathematically, once again defeating the foundation put forth by the Well Doer.
Zamiatin was a gifted writer. In We, he has no trouble capturing the tone of official propaganda, and he relays such passages despite the mood of D-503. How's this for a lovely bit of prose, as a lecturer is talking about the mathematical composition of music by machine: "'By merely rotating this handle anyone is enabled to produce about three sonatas per hour. What difficulties our predecessors had in making music! They were able to compose only by bringing themselves to attacks of inspiration, an extinct form of epilepsy'" (17) Zamiatin also makes extensive use of the ellipsis as a way of conveying information and sudden switches in mood. Because D-503 is on such a wild ride, such constructions can be found on almost every page. For example: "Suddenly from within me a powerful fountain of... I had to use all my strength to control myself, so as not to fill the auditorium with screams" (104). Zamiatin also used some sly humour, although the reader is generally not supposed to be laughing at poor old D-503. But sometimes D's fevered pitch verges on the absurd. Each of the forty Records that make up We have a brief synopsis under the record heading. Record Thirty-Eight has the following: "I Don't Know What Title -- Perhaps the Whole Synopsis May Be Called a Castoff Cigarette Butt" (208).
We is essential reading for two reasons: the book understands totalitarianism and calls it for what it is; and the book underpins many important themes that followed in science fiction. Reading We is a strange and disorienting experience at times, but well worth the trouble. Perhaps someday it will no longer be necessary as a warning, and may that day come soon.
Last modified: April 23, 2000
Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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