Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

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 Yet while it remained unpublished in the USSR until Glasnost, a manuscript escaped and has had a lasting influence on literature ever since.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 comments on “We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

  1. Dr John Latham
    August 24, 2010

    I read this book in the spring which is quite a coincidence. I had a few problems with it, although I liked its imprecision and dream-like qualities.
    I think it was the numbers. I got on with so many of the words, but the equations did not seem to illuminate things so much and I struggled with trying to disentangle them. At times I felt I was ploughing through something which needed a translator to make me competent enough to grasp what needed grasping. At other times, I felt I was a little bit lost in something which would lose too many readers in its self-indulgent passages.

    Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking review.
    John.

  2. crazyfieldmouse
    August 24, 2010

    This sounds fascinating, confess I have never heard of it, I will definitely add it to the list. Thanks for the review.
    cfm

  3. Marian Schwartz
    August 24, 2010

    Who wrote the translation?

  4. SamRuddock
    August 24, 2010

    Interesting to read your thoughts, John, especially as it seems we liked completely opposite things about it! I completely agree that I was a little lost in some of the indulgent passages, though I actually found the mathematical bits fascinating and reasonably easy to read, whereas the imprecision really alienated me.

    Marian: the translation that I read was done by Natasha Randall but there are many many others.

  5. Jackie
    August 24, 2010

    Excellent review, Sam, of a complex book.I’ve never heard of this one, (though I should have) & now I’m curious to read it, in part, to compare it to Orwell & Huxley.I’ll just overlook all the numbers, since math is definitely not my forte. The use of colors is also something that interests me. It does sound a bit bleak, but then. all those dystopian books are, aren’t they?

  6. Nikki
    August 25, 2010

    I read Brave New World and Nineteen-Eighty-Four when I was taking my A-Levels about five years agoa nd althoguh I haven’t read them since they’ve stuck with me. There’s something about dystopian novels that cling to you long after you’ve read them. We sounds like another example. Strange that I’d never heard of it despite its similarities to the other two. Definitely one to read, it may even inspire a re-read.

  7. SamRuddock
    August 25, 2010

    I agree, Nikki, there is something about dustopian novels that makes them both appealing (at least to me) and lasting. I haven’t read a transient dystopian novel. And yet they are often very bleak as Jackie says. Brave New World particularly. We feels a little bit brighter then BNW or 1984 but that is largely because he isn’t fighting the system quite as hard as he is fighting himself. If you actually look at what it is saying, there is an argument that because of their more open opposition BNW and 1984 actually portray a more positive outlook, particularly as Orwell puts faith in the future in the prols who are most of the population. We on the other hand doesn’t put faith in anything for a brighter future. There is a feeling that nothing has changed come the end.

    I’ve only jsust thought about this, but We is fascinating as it is written from a different perspective than the other two. While BNW and 1984 are written from the perspective of people who (however uncommitted at the beginning) are happy to be rebeling. We on the other hand, is from the point of view of one who is not keen to rebel and only does accidentally. There are many others who are rebelling more than D503 which creates a very different perspective on the opposition to hegemonic state control.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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