George Orwell accused Aldous Huxley of plagiarising ‘We’ when he wrote ‘Brave New World’; the words pot, kettle and black come to mind. Still, if I go down that route I’m going to end up being equally childish. The facts remains that ‘We’ is a fantastic novel and belongs with ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’ as essential dystopian reading. What’s been exciting this time, has been seeing how it fits into the Russian canon, as well as the list of great 20th centuries dystopian novels.
‘We’ takes place in the future, in a heavily controlled state. It’s written as a diary by an engineer who wishes to take the opportunity to record all that is great about his regulated, controlled life. The novel begins with the communal ideal, D-503 writes ‘I will just attempt to record what I see, what I think – or, more accurately, what we think. (Yes, that’s right: we. And let that also be the title of these records: We.’ As the narrative continues however D503 is seduced into increasing individuality, through his love for the mysterious I-330, through his unexpected dreams and through his discovery of an individual voice as the narrator of his own life. It’s beautifully managed, and it’s also thoroughly gripping as D-503’s love for the One State becomes subverted into love for individuals and for himself. It’s not a simple journey of discovery however. Well over half way through the book there’s a chilling description of an ‘election’: ‘For us, there is nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of: we celebrate election day in the daytime, openly and honestly. I see everyone vote for the Benefactor ; everyone sees me vote for the Benefactor – and it couldn’t be any different, since “I’ and “everyone” are the unified “WE”.’ The novel was banned by the Soviet censorship bureau in 1921; it’s not hard to see why. It’s not only bitingly critical of the communal ideal, but it’s also so incredibly well-written. D-503 is believable as a worker committed to the One State and, as he starts to question his convictions and mental health, he becomes an utterly pitiable everyman.
Given that ‘We’ was written before its more famous English language counterparts I’d recommend trying to read it without the shadows of Orwell and Huxley diminishing its staggering originality. If you like literary games, there is a lot of fun reference spotting (diary, check; ‘old’ house, check; societally orchestrated sexual habits, check), but ‘We’ does deserve reading for itself as well.
What has been wonderful about reading ‘We’ as part of this project has been seeing it in a Russian, as well as an essentially British tradition of [dystopican] literature. I nearly applauded when I read the first chapter ‘Integrating the grand equation of the universe: yes. Taming a wild zigzag along a tangent, towards he asymptote, into a straight line: yes. You see, the line of the One State – it is a straight line. A great, divine, precise, wise, straight line…’ I had never expected such a quick pay-off for reading Petersburg, and here I had a literary response to the senator Apollon Apollonovich of whom we’re told ‘Planned regularity and symmetry calmed the senator’s nerves, which were stimulated both by the routhness of domestic life and by the helpless circle of the revolution of our wheel of state … Most of all did he love the rectilinear prospect; this pospect reminded him of the flow of time between two points of life … he desired … that the whole spherical surface of the planet should be gripped by the blackish-grey cubes of the houses as by serpentine coils; that the whole of the earth squeezed by prospect should intersect the immensity in linear cosmic flight with a rectilinear law … As for the zigzag line, he could not endure it.’ The genre is different, but the symbols are the same and Zamyatin is all the richer for his echoing of his land’s contemporary classics.
I really really recommend this book if you haven’t read it before. In fact, if you have already read it, you should consider re-reading. The plot may not have felt new this time round, but now that I wasn’t distracted by Zamyatin’s science fiction imagination I was all the more struck by his literary exuberance. ‘We’ is a novel of the city, a melo-dramatic romance and a masterful dystopia. The only thing to be upset about is how little it’s known in comparison to ‘1984’ and ‘Brave New World’, I know I’ll be up on my soap box promoting it for quite a while to come.