26 December 2012

We (Yevgeny Zamyatin)

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We takes place in the far-future One State, walled off by glass from the green and chaotic world outside, where all citizens have numbers instead of names, and order their lives according to a strict Table of Hours--even chewing their food in unison. It's narrated by D-503, a mathematician and engineer heading up the construction of the Integral, a spaceship set to take the blessings of the One State to the universe. Then he meets a strange woman, I-330, who opens his mind to the possibilities of disorder and disobedience.

It's a story I've read before, but that's because it's the source, the progenitor of better-known 20th-century dystopias like 1984 and Brave New World. (Better known in the U.S., I mean--though We wasn't published in its native Russia until 1988, some 67 years after it was written, I imagine it's pretty standard there now.) Orwell, in fact, wrote 1984 just a few months after encountering a translation of We. So it's clearly an important novel, and surprising, since it was written so soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, long before the oppressive heyday of the Soviet Union.

For me, though, We's ur-text nature hurt it somewhat as just a good read; I can't undo having experienced the plot before in my own chronology, and so it felt predictable. The prose, too, suffers a bit from its own premises--writing of a perfectly comformist society requires a certain tedium, backed up by very Russian bleakness. It's not a difficult read, nor a disappointing one. But I felt its worth more as an artifact than as a work of art.

P.S. Yevgeny is so my favorite Russian name!

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