We – Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)
‘Set in the twenty-sixth century AD, Zamyatin’s masterpiece describes life in the regimented totalitarian society of OneState, ruled over by the all-powerful ‘Benefactor’. The inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984, ‘We’ is the archetype of the modern dystopia, or anti-Utopia: a great prose poem detailing the fate that might befall us all if we surrender our individual selves to some collective dream of technology and fail in the vigilance that is the price of freedom.
Clarence Brown’s brilliant translation is based on the corrected text of the novel, first published in Russia in 1988 after more than sixty years’ suppression.’
Blurb from the 1993 Penguin Classics Paperback Edition
‘We (Russian: Мы) is a dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin completed in 1921. It was written in response to the author’s personal experiences during the Russian revolution of 1905, the Russian revolution of 1917, his life in the Newcastle suburb of Jesmond, and his work in the Tyne shipyards during the First World War. It was on Tyneside that he observed the rationalization of labour on a large scale. Zamyatin was a trained marine engineer, hence his dispatch to Newcastle to oversee ice-breaker construction for the Imperial Russian navy.’ – (Wikipedia – 2011)
One would hope that the original Russian text is even more richly descriptive and poetic than the English translation, which is often a joyride of surprising metaphor and deft literary touches.
Set in some indeterminate future following a 2000 years war, ‘We’ is narrated by D-503, a citizen of his beloved Onestate, where Freedom has been abolished and brought order and peace to life within the green glass walls of the city.
His life is perfectly mathematically organised, with his lover, O, his poet friend, R13 and his work on the INTEGRAL, a space-ship which will take the principles of Onestate to other races of the Universe.
His life is turned upside-down when he meets I-330, a seductive temptress, the Eve to his Adam, who leads him into greater and greater anti-social transgressions.
For its time, ‘We’ must have seemed not only an abundantly anti-communist novel, but a shockingly immoral one with its depictions of how couples make dates to have sex by the issuing of a pink ticket. Quaint as the concept may seem to us, it was no doubt a way of showing Communism as being Godless and immoral, and presumably raised quite a few eyebrpws at the time.
Like Stapledon’s ‘Last and First Men’, ‘We’ is one of those rare pieces that emerges decades ahead of its time and remains fresh, strange and disturbing.
Its beauty, and paradoxically, the underlying horror that filters through to the reader, is the almost religious conviction with which D-503 expounds his views. He truly loves the city, his work and the way of life. So well-drawn is this character that today we would classify him as suffering from OCD.
One has to be grateful to Western publishers for picking this up (it was published here in 1924) as otherwise it may never have seen the light of day. It was belatedly published in Russia in 1988, nearly seventy years after it was written.