We * YEVGENY IVANOVICH ZAMYATIN

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Consider this. If your world resembles the world of our distant ancestors, then imagine that once upon a time you were sailing on the ocean and you bumped into a sixth or a seventh part of the world, some kind of Atlantis, and there you found unheard-of labyrinth-cities, people soaring about in the air without the help of wings or aeros, stones that you could lift just by looking at them—in other words, something that you’d never be able to imagine even if you had the dream sickness. That’s just how I felt yesterday. Because, you see, ever since the 200-Years War none of us had ever been on the other side of the Wall—that I’ve already told you.

YEVGENY IVANOVICH ZAMYATIN (1884-1937) was a naval architect by profession and a writer by nature. His favorite idea was the absolute freedom of the human personality to create, to imagine, to love, to make mistakes, and to change the world. This made him a highly inconvenient citizen of two despotisms, the tsarist and the Communist, both of which exiled him, the first for a year, the latter forever. He wrote short stories, plays, and essays, but his masterpiece is We, written in 1920-21 and soon thereafter translated into most of the languages of the world. It first appeared in Russia only in 1988. It is the archetype of the modern dystopia, or anti-utopia; a great prose poem on the fate that might befall all of us if we surrender our individual selves to some collective dream of technology and fail in the vigilance that is the price of freedom. George Orwell, the author of 1984, acknowledged his debt to Zamyatin. The other great English dystopia of our time, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, was evidently written out of the same impulse, though without direct knowledge of Zamyatin’s We.

We, and all similar dystopias, are among the only works that truly deserve to be called postmodern. If “modern” means what any reader in any conceivable “today” regards as up-to-date opinion and style, then every imagined distant future will be irretrievably “post” all such notions. But the novel as a form, whatever its ostensible setting, is always about the time in which it is written. Zamyatin’s nightmare is a nightmare of the early twenties, and it is specifically the nightmare of a Russian who has spent time in the industrial north of England and read H. G. Wells, never forgetting his native Dostoevsky nor what he could see out the window.

In Zamyatin’s time, when the Russian Bolsheviks were consolidating the revolution they had just taken over, human perfectibility was being talked about with utterly deadpan faces by platoons of well-meaning or malicious imbeciles

A thousand years ago your heroic forebears subjugated the whole of planet Earth to the power of OneState. It is for you to accomplish an even more glorious feat: by means of the glass, the electric, the fire-breathing INTEGRAL to integrate the indefinite equation of the universe. It is for you to place the beneficial yoke of reason round the necks of the unknown beings who inhabit other planets—still living, it may be, in the primitive state known as freedom. If they will not understand that we are bringing them a mathematically infallible happiness, we shall be obliged to force them to be happy. But before taking up arms, we shall try what words can do.

I loved this book even though I found it hard to read at times. Written in first person by D-503, a mathematician of the OneState, builder of the INTEGRAL, the story unfolds as a series of records – kept like journal entries – where we find more and more about this world where he lives in. He has one girl he likes and one that likes him back but that he’s not so fond of. They have an allocated day for Sex where they draw numbers.

She’s a funny one. But what could I say? She was with me only yesterday, and she knows as well as I do that our next Sex Day is the day after tomorrow

D-503 is very meticulous in his record-keeping even saying at one point: “I’m writing what happened, leaving nothing out) I became for a time impermeable to the vivifying stream pouring out of the loudspeaker.”.

The language is strangely lyrical and the ebbs and flows make you feel like you are a trusted confidante and you are being “fed” in bird bites information about this Russian Utopia.

It’s natural that once Hunger had been vanquished (which is algebraically the equivalent of attaining the summit of material well-being), OneState mounted an attack on that other ruler of the world, Love. Finally, this element was also conquered, i.e., organized, mathematicized, and our Lex sexualis was promulgated about 300 years ago: “Any Number has the right of access to any other Number as sexual product.”

D-503 discovers he has an individual soul. This is slightly problematic as the entire nation does not have the concept of uniqueness. There is no such thing as One. There is just Many – WE.

I have faith that you will understand how hard it is for me to write, harder than for any other writer in the whole extent of human history: They wrote for their contemporaries, others wrote for posterity, but nobody ever wrote for their ancestors or for people like their wild remote ancestors….

It takes the modern industrial society to an extreme conclusion, depicting a state that believes that free will is the cause of unhappiness, and that citizens’ lives should be controlled with mathematical precision based on the system of industrial efficiency created by Frederick Winslow Taylor.

There is a moment of respite when he takes some hallucinogenic drugs / gets drunk with his girlfriend.

Suddenly her arm crept round my neck, lips touched lips, went deeper, things got even scarier…. I swear, this was a total surprise for me, and maybe that’s the only reason why … Because I could not have … I now understand this with absolute clarity … I could not possibly have desired what happened next.

Unbearably sweet lips (the liqueur, I suppose) … and I tasted a swallow of burning poison, and another, and another, and I broke free of the earth, a free planet, whirling furiously, down, down, along some orbit yet to be calculated.

It’s at that point where he realises he cannot serve the One State fully – he’s now broken free.

That night was torture. The bed under me rose and fell and rose again-sailing along a sinusoid. I kept repeating to myself: “At night the Number’s duty is to sleep. This is just as much an obligation as work during the day. It is required so that one can work during the day. Not to sleep at night is unlawful.” And still I could not, I just could not.

I’m done for. I’m in no condition to fulfill my obligations to OneState. I …

This is fairly common in books where a form of transcendence shows the person where they are and how they fit in with the rest of the world. From here on, Mr. D is on a path to escape and using his girlfriend’s knowledge, they both manage to get to a new spot – “mephi”.

And then here I am back down, right beside the stone, my body rumpled, happy, crumpled as if it had just made love. Sun. Voices from above. 1-330’s smile. Some woman with golden hair, herself all gold and satin, smelling of grasses. She has a cup in her hands, a wooden cup, apparently. She drinks from it with her red lips and hands it to me and I shut my eyes and drink, I drink greedily, to douse the fire, I drink sweet, stinging, cold sparks. And after that my blood and the whole world go a thousand times faster and the light earth races like a bit of fluff. And everything seems to me easy, simple, and clear.

Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, We was the forerunner of works such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It was suppressed for many years in Russia and remains a resounding cry for individual freedom, yet is also a powerful, exciting and vivid work of science fiction.

It’s the amazing atmosphere Zamyatin creates through the pen of his protagonist, a little formerly happy cog in the wheel with a few atavistic features and an unexpected development of an incurable condition – a soul. The writing so amazingly reflects the mental state of the confused man – so fractured and frantic and stuttering and urgent and anxious and often disjointed, laden with metaphors and unexpected emotions and full-on scream of soul.

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