Dystopic Horror

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The New York Sun

“Reason,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “causes us to falsify the testimony of the senses.” In Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (Modern Library, 240 pages, $12,95), written in the aftermath of World War I, the One State is a society where the mind, no matter how artificially it constructs reality, is always prized over matter. The protagonist, D–503, is a mathematician and the chief builder of the Integral, a rocket and time capsule that will help spread the glory of his hyperindustrialized nation to the inhabitants of other planets. The only civilization left on earth after a devastating revolution, the One State is a massive city encased inside a murky green-glass wall, beyond which exists only an irrational, and therefore unimportant, unknown. D–503 lives in a state of perfect contentment; his only knowledge of the primitive “ancient” world is purely academic and a cause for amusement.

Literary scholars and science fiction enthusiasts have long privileged “We,” written between 1919 and 1920, for being the first major dystopian novel. In pioneering this thoroughly 20th century genre, Zamyatin influenced writers like George Orwell, Aldous Huxley (although not directly), and Ayn Rand. Zamyatin himself was inspired by H.G. Wells, whose books he had read while overseeing the construction of ice breakers in Britain in the two years leading up to Russia’s October Revolution. In Wells’s novels and essays, Zamyatin discovered futurism, early science fiction, and a vision of utopia.

“We” is full of sentence fragments, abrupt stops marked by colons, and ellipses that trail off into the ineffable, into a region that D–503 can’t “pin … down, [can’t] give … any numerical expression.” Natasha Randall’s new translation does a good job re-creating the impressionistic, fragmented style of Zamyatin’s Russian, and brings out the humorous, punning nature of his prose. For example, the citizens of the One State, in Ms. Randall’s translation, are the “ciphers,” literally, units with a zero value, as only their service to the One State is of any consequence. But these “ciphers” — more of them than D–503 even knows — also bear hidden messages, covert thoughts, and secret souls, a whole code that the narrator accidentally begins deciphering as the novel draws out.

In the One State, “arithmetically illiterate compassion,” the sickness of bothersome imagination, and unnecessary individuality have been almost entirely eradicated. Here, people strive for a machine-like precision and a homogenized, collective happiness. As the title implies, pronouns other than “we” and “our” are no longer necessary, as they do not adequately express the State’s will.

When he gets entangled in an obsessive love affair with a free-thinking, alcohol-drinking, cigarette-smoking revolutionary, I–330, D–503 begins to discover secrets embedded within himself. But self-awareness is in no way compatible with the One State and rational, collective thinking: “The only things that are aware of themselves and conscious of their individuality are irritated eyes, cut fingers, sore teeth. A healthy eye … might as well not even be there. Isn’t it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?”

Whereas Orwell’s Winston is relentlessly pursued by the ever-present will of Big Brother, Zamyatin’s narrator is more often than not pitted against his own sense of morality, which proves an even more psychologically menacing foe. After D–503 seeks medical attention for his debilitating malaise, he is diagnosed with a curious ailment: It seems he has a soul. Suddenly, his identity splits between his old, happily mechanized self, and his newfound self-awareness. Thus, the government has done its job well, turning the One State into a terrifying panopticon, in which even if the Guardians or your neighbors are not watching through the glass walls of your apartment, “your shadow sees you, it sees you all the time.”

Though it was written a few years before Stalin’s rise to power,”We” eerily suggests his reign with the autocratic and unchallenged figure of the Benefactor of the One State, both a god and the embodiment of mechanized perfection:

the immobile, metallic figure of He whom we call the BENEFACTOR … His face … was described by severe, majestic, quadratic outlines. But then, His hands … It was clear that these heavy hands, still calmly lying on His knees: they were stone, and the knees only barely supported their weight.

The people’s unwavering love for the One State parallels 20th-century totalitarianism, and the loss of individualism and freedom that accompanies it. In fact, “We” was first published only in America in 1924. The original Russian text was censored until 1988.

Though it can occasionally seem dated, or even quaint,”We” is a very enjoyable read. Literarily, Zamyatin challenges us with his fragmented impressionism and poetic rhythm. The novel’s ending still resonates with chilling provocation. Moreover, this is a work of undeniable historical significance, and with its tacit commentary on freedom and censorship, “We” is at least politically timeless.

Ms. Kudish last wrote for these pages about Luigi Pirandello.

The New York Sun

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