Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Book Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Read: August 2010

We in one tweet-sized chunk:
A compelling dystopian story of love and rebellion with a mathematical style all of its own creation. 

Yevgeny Zamyatin completed We in 1921, only for it to gain the dubious honour of becoming the first book to be banned by Glavlit, the newly created Soviet censors. Yet while it remained unpublished in the USSR until Glasnost, a manuscript escaped and has had a lasting influence on literature ever since. It is considered one of the first dystopian novels, and George Orwell read and reviewed a French translation only eight months before starting Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are many parallels between the two: for Big Brother, We has the Benefactor, for the telescreen, Zamyatin creates the Table, a formula that constructs every second of every citizens time. Similar parallels are noticeable with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, though Huxley apparently hadn’t read it before publishing in 1932. Yet regardless of any comparisons, We is valuable in its own right: a compelling story of love and rebellion with a mathematical prose all of its own creation.

The One State is the pinnacle of human social evolution, a mathematically perfect machine in which every citizen – every cog in the machine – lives in a condition of “mathematically infallible happiness” for the first time since the Garden of Eden. It was foolish desire for freedom that resulted in mankind’s banishment from Eden and it is now by abolishing freedom that happiness has been restored. Life is organised to ensure maximum productive output through complete equality and the removal of strife. The sky is perfectly blue, every cipher (citizen) is entitled to sex with any other cipher – so long as it is within certain Table determined times of the day and requested with the use of a pink ticket – and no-one dreams at night. They live in a calm clean panopticon, known only by numbers and watched over at all times by the Guardians.

D-503 is one such cipher. A mathematician, he is the builder of the Integral, a spaceship which will soon enable the One State to export the “great flywheel of logic”, as he terms their way of life, to the “barbarians” in the rest of the solar system. Called on to create works dedicated to the beauty and majesty of the One State to form part of the cargo for that first voyage D-503 sets out to record what he sees and thinks, or, more exactly, “what we think” as his ode to rational utopia. But when he meets and falls for I-330, a rebel seeking to bring down the state, his rational and ordered world is thrown into turmoil. He discovers an imagination of his own, dreams rise unbidden, and he is placed on a collision course with that system he loves.

One of the things that makes We so compelling is that D-503 completely and implicitly believes in the One State and spends a great deal of time extolling its virtue. He is a rather Panglossian in his ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ attitude which can make him painfully blind to the abuses of the state - public torture, execution, and violence are common and merciless – and the rationale behind his arguments is indicative of this. They convey a certain clarity of thought which makes them somehow compelling, even while disagreeing completely. For instance, crime:
“Freedom and crime are so indissolubly connected to each other, like…well, like the movement of the aero and its velocity. When the velocity of the aero = 0, it doesn’t move; when the freedom of a person = 0, he doesn’t commit crime. This is clear. The sole means of ridding man of crime is to rid him of freedom.”

Mathematics is the language that underpins everything. Zamyatin, a mathematician himself, writes prose that reflects this. His sentences are exact and balanced, with colons used in a way that is almost like an = sign, to convey cause and effect. Furthermore, Zamyatin was synaesthetic - to him every letter and word has its own colour, its own visual representation – and in a book which relies so much on colour – the peaceful one state is blue, I-330 is yellow, O-90, D-503s former regular sex partner, is pink as are most other women – this provides an added texture through which to experience the increasingly impressionistic dreamscapes.  

There are some beautiful phrases too, particularly those early on in which he observes the beauty of machines and order:
“And then I thought to myself: why?...The answer: because it is non-free movement, because the whole profound point of this dance lies precisely in its absolute, aesthetic subordination, its perfect non-freedom.”

I often perceived a similar ordered beauty while staring out of my university bedroom window and watching cars going round and around a roundabout, stopping at the traffic lights, awaiting their turn, continuing on, all in perfect order and harmony. Whereas in Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World we are expected to react with revulsion to the monstrous systems of state and industrial control, the responses of the reader are a little more nuanced in We. There are positives as well as negatives and this results in a compellingly three dimensional fictional world.

What is particularly interesting, is that while Winston Smith (in Nineteen Eighty-Four) finds rebellion through love attractive and liberating, an act of self-determinism worthy in its own right, it sends D-503 mad. He compares it to the time when Ö-1 “happened” to him, that is, when he discovered the existence of the imaginary or irrational number. Obsessively drawn to I-330 by a love he neither fully understands nor controls, he sees his newly found imagination as a sickness. It is an eyelash in his eye that he can’t ignore no matter how he wishes too. The dreams he has gradually overtake his daily life to the point where it becomes impossible to determine where reality stops and dreams begin.

Despite its ban in his homeland, the Soviet state is not the specific target of We, though there are inevitably aspects there. It is a rather wider critique of the colonising uniformity that he perceived as inherent in industrial civilisations the world over. As Orwell notes, it is primarily “a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.” It is satire, but not limited solely to Soviet politics. Philosophical ideas are targeted, often in witty parodies of their original content. For example, Marxist thought on determinist historical progression is satirised in a conversation between D-503 and I-330.
“Do you realise that what you are suggesting is revolution?”
“Of course, it's revolution. Why not?"
“Because there can't be a revolution. Our revolution was the last and there can never be another. Everybody knows that.”
“My dear, you're a mathematician: tell me, which is the last number?”
“But that's absurd. Numbers are infinite. There can't be a last one.”
“Then why do you talk about the last revolution?”

And there’s similar treatment for Rousseau’s Discourse on Equality and Dostoyevsky in general. We is playful, experimental satire of a fictional future state where individual liberty is of the lowest priority. It is exact and interesting and thought-provoking. For the first fifty pages I was convinced that it would go down as one of my favourite novels. But when the dreams begin it all became a little too unfocused for my liking. Although I am aware that this is a personal preference rather than a genuine criticism, the increasingly blurred boundaries between the real and the imagined proved disorientating to me. Although very different in content, the longer We went on, the more it reminded me of The Famished Road by Ben Okri with its endless blending of colour and dream. Many will love it for this reason, but it frustrated me somewhat and made the plot and characters slightly difficult to follow.

Nonetheless, it is a book that should be read. If you like dystopian literature which makes you think about the world and society you live in, We is a must read right up alongside the many other great works of dystopian writing from the first half of the twentieth century.

Vintage Classics, 2007, 9780099511434, 203pp

7.5 our of 10

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Juxtabook said...

I haven't read much dystopian literture. In fact though I've read lots of Orwell 1984 is one I haven't. I must take the plunge but I have been putting it off. I was eyeing a paperback copy of Brave New World that I had in stock but someone went and bought it before I made the move to read it (one of the perils of the job). Your review of We intrigues me though and I know it is a genre I must get round to exploring. perhaps getting this trying it back to back with 1984? Hmm.

Sam Ruddock said...

Back to back with 1984 would be very interesting; I'd be fascinated to hear how they come out against each other.

What I think is most notable about 1984 and Brave New World, over and above their dystopian visions, is that they are very very good compelling stories. They make enjoyable reading.

Hope you enjoy.