Saturday, August 11, 2012

We by Vevgeny Zamyatin (translation)

In the totalitarian OneState, D-503 is a mathematician and designer, building the INTEGRAL space ship. It’s a world where people wear identical yunies (uniform) and are only known by their numbers. The Benefactor rules by tough love – using the Great Operation to lobotomise anyone who thinks out of line – aided by the watchful Guardians (secret police).

Religion has been removed and discredited. Society has a common purpose and there’s no recourse to autonomous action as individuals very matter-of-factly play their part in the overall masterplan.

We is a translation from the Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920s novel, that is reckoned to have influenced George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

D-503 writes in the opening chapter:

“I shall attempt nothing more than to note down what I see, what I think – or, to be more exact, what we thing (that’s right: we; and let this WE be the title of these records).

Nick Reynolds – whose blog post tipped me off about the book – points out that the novel’s “short sections, diary format, chronological order” mean that in modern terms, “it’s a blog”!

The narrator understands the regime’s desires but can sense that absolute perfection has yet to be achieved.

“I’ll be completely honest with you: Even we haven’t yet solved the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day – from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 – the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. [The daily timetable of activity up in everyone’s wall.]

During these hours you’ll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks.

But I firmly believe- let them call me idealist and dreamer – but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we’ll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 86,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours.”

The activities going on behind the lowered blinds – the only time the Guardians can’t peek into apartments – are arranged by the official issue of a Sex Day pink ticket. While people may have regular partners, assignations seem impersonal non-exclusive. Permission to conceive is a gift from the Benefactor and not a right; children may be given up at birth to be reared by the state.

D-503’s stable lifestyle changes one afternoon when he is out for a walk during Personal Hour with his friend and regular partner O-90. (If OneState still had a word to describe it, she would be dangerously close to being in “love” with D-503, though she’s too short to be allowed to bear children.)

They find themselves walking alongside I-330 who quickly displays her independent thinking and desire to bend and break the rules. D-503’s scribbled notes show I-330’s influence over him growing. Meanwhile, outside OneState’s boundary – the Green Wall – another civilisation is planning the next revolution.

OneState is a land of surveillance, uniformity, a common purpose, and a detachment from emotion. I found Zamyatin’s novel warmer and less grey than Nineteen Eighty-Four. Less sinister, though perhaps portraying a society with even less room for independent opinion. Somehow the rooms described in We didn’t feel as claustrophobic as Orwell’s, though the open outdoor spaces in OneState still lack freedom and remain under tight control.

Two hundred pages well worth reading. And a reminder of the dangers of group-think. As I write, the London 2012 Olympics has another 24 hours to run and there's an almost universal enjoyment and buy-in to the games ... with only a few rebels breaking away from what We think and daring to question the sporting wonder!

Note that various English translations of We exist – the introduction to my copy (1993, Clarence Brown) explains the history of the book’s publication (an English translation came out well before the book was able to be released in Russia) and the differences in approach by some of the previous translators. There’s an even more recent translation (2006, Natasha Randall also available for Kindle) with an introduction by Will Self.

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