Saturday, 26 May 2018

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

There are two reasons why I wanted to read We by Yevgeny Zamyatin: firstly, I haven't to the best of my knowledge read a Russian novel published before or after the 19th Century (though I did read Chekhov's Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, 1901 and 1904), and secondly this was the primary inspiration for George Orwell's most famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). As for We, that was largely inspired by Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov.

The similarities between Nineteen Eighty-Four and We are striking. It's set in the future, in We's case the 26th Century A.D. in 'One State', a frightening totalitarian dystopia where the secret police and guardians watch their citizen's every move. It's told in the first person: the narrator D-503 tells his story in a series of records, and in the second he describes his surroundings:
It's spring. From beyond the Green Wall, from the wild plains out of sight in the distance, the wind is carrying the honeyed yellow pollen from some flower. This sweet pollen dries the lips - you keep running your tongue over them - and every woman you meet (and every man, too, of course) must have these sweet lips. This somewhat interferes with logical thought.
And then what a sky! Blue, unsullied by a single cloud (what primitive tastes those ancients must have had if their poets were inspired by those absurd, untidy clumps of most, idiotically jostling one another about). I love - and I am sure that I am right in saying we love - only such a sky as this one today: sterile and immaculate. On days like this the whole world seems to have been cast of the same immovable and everlasting glass as the Green Wall, as all of our structures. On days like this you can see into the deep blue depth of things, you see their hitherto unsuspected, astonishing equations - you see this in the most ordinary, the most everyday things.
Individualism, clearly, is crushed but D-503 is happy and keeps his records to show the greatness of the One State and its plans to bring to fruition the establishment of One State in space. But as Orwell's Winston Smith was awakened by Julia, D-503 was awakened by I-330. She makes his feel uncomfortable to the point where he writes she repulses him, yet at the same time he is attracted to her and one day spends a forbidden afternoon with her. He then learns of her involvement with the Mephi, a group planning on bringing down the One State and reunify it with the world beyond the 'Green Wall'. It is from here we begin to see in D-503's records the dark and sinister side of One State.

With the First World War ending and the Second already showing some signs of looming, along with the Russian revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union, it's no wonder that there was a sharp rise in dystopian novels in the early to mid part of the 20th Century. It was the revolution that inspired We, the fears of forced equality and 'oneness' and the need and demand for absolute trust in the system. As Orwell wrote in his review of We (in which he argues that it inspired Huxley's Brave New World, something Huxley refuted),
In the twenty-sixth century, in Zamyatin's vision of it, the inhabitants of Utopia have so completely lost their individuality as to be known only by numbers. They live in glass houses (this was written before television was invented), which enables the political police, known as the "Guardians", to supervise them more easily. They all wear identical uniforms, and a human being is commonly referred to either as "a number" or "a unif" (uniform). They live on synthetic food, and their usual recreation is to march in fours while the anthem of the Single State is played through loudspeakers. At stated intervals they are allowed for one hour (known as "the sex hour") to lower the curtains round their glass apartments. There is, of course, no marriage, though sex life does not appear to be completely promiscuous. For purposes of love-making everyone has a sort of ration book of pink tickets, and the partner with whom he spends one of his allotted sex hours signs the counterfoil. The Single State is ruled over by a personage known as The Benefactor, who is annually re-elected by the entire population, the vote being always unanimous. The guiding principle of the State is that happiness and freedom are incompatible. In the Garden of Eden man was happy, but in his folly he demanded freedom and was driven out into the wilderness. Now the Single State has restored his happiness by removing his freedom.
The ideas of being watched, and indeed synthetic food is enough to make the modern reader slightly nervous; as for imaginative individuals, that is something not always encouraged - there is a 'right' way to be imaginative and individual. Still, this is a warning about absolute power and totalitarianism, not a prophecy, and we can be thankful we're a long way off from such a state. Even so, by its very nature it's a disturbing and uncomfortable read, as Nineteen Eighty-Four was, but worth it I think for its comments on the chaos within human nature and how suppressing it only leads to more chaos.

4 comments:

  1. It's a thought-provoking novel for sure, and I'm planning on rereading it sometime soon.

    I know something (not a lot) about 20th century Russian literature, but nothing before Pushkin. I think everybody wrote in French before Pushkin, didn't they? Is there much in the way of pre-19th century Russian literature?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think there's some notable pre-19th Century, but I can't name any I'm afraid. There's some stuff out there, though :) As for me, I'm like you - I've read nothing pre-Pushkin.

      Delete
  2. great post... and it reminds me that we're a lot closer to the all-encompassing state than we used to be... i don't think Brave New World was very much like WE or The Brother's Karamazov... the other two, though, i would agree that they provide the root system for 1984... but who knows... connections are broader than we can imagine, i suspect....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll have to re-read Brave New World - it's been years and years since I read it and I can't remember any of it, not one bit! :)

      Delete

Popular Posts of the Year