Friday, January 14, 2011

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin


Everymannumber D-503 is just minding his own business.  He does what all good numbers do.  He gets up at the appointed time, goes to work at the appointed time, goes to bed at the appointed time, and even spends his one personal hour every day in his glassed-walled apartment doing OneState approved activities.  He even has a girlfriend of sorts, the sweet and simple O-90, though of course he's no more attached to her than is appropriate for an obedient number, and she in turn is 'assigned' to other men as well.  He works hard on the INTEGRAL, the spaceship that will soon carry the OneState's glorious ideas to faraway planets.  Yes, D-503 is a veritable poster child for OneState's ultimate victory--the victory of happiness over its enemy:  freedom.  Then one day, D-503 meets the irresistible I-330, and everything changes.  Torn between attraction and repulsion, he finds himself going places he shouldn't go, doing things he shouldn't do, and thinking things he definitely shouldn't think. This is his diary.

If this all sounds kind of familiar, it should.  This is, in essence, the granddaddy dystopian novel--the novel from which all other dystopian novels evolved.  The connection is most easily seen in Orwell's excellent Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he based on We, though other dystopian writers relied on Zamyatin as well.  As well they should-- it's a great book (though my love of dystopian literature makes for less-than-unbiased assessment).

Where many dystopian writers give their characters names, Zamyatin identifies his only with letters and numbers (consonants and odd numbers for men; vowels and even numbers for women).  The numerical/mathematical emphasis is a clever choice, possibly connected Zamyatin's sythesthesia--a condition where sensory information is confused ('hearing' colors, etc.).  In Zamyatin's case, this meant that he perceived the shapes of letters as having colors or other qualities. His choice to identify his characters only by letters and numbers, then, lends a certain poignancy to the story, and fits well with D-503's own work as a mathematician.  (Though for all his focus on math, D-503 could certainly crank out enough words.)  

As with so many dystopian works, the antithesis of the totalitarian regime is, quite simply, sex.  Specifically, illicit sex, since the numbers in We are permitted--even encouraged--to use one another for sex, provided that they do not commit the cardinal sin of jealousy.  I'm not sure how I feel about illicit sex being the primary key to unlocking the 'soul,' but I suppose unbridled passion is perceived as the polar opposite of cold rationality and regimented uniformity, so it's not surprising that sex is presented as the 'cure' for an increasingly automatous citizenry.

Nor am I enamored of the 'heroine' who uses her sex appeal to arouse men into rebellion. (Especially compared to the cast-off and child-hungry--and much more sympathetic--O-90.)  Where O-90 seems to genuinely care about D-503, I-330 is only interested in what he can offer the rebellion--that is, access to the soon-to-be-completed INTEGRAL.  Hardly a sympathetic character.  Her ultimate treatment of O-90 is slightly redemptive, but she is still one calculating cookie.  (Side note:  Zamyatin's treatment of gender would make for a fascinating article I am utterly unqualified to write.  Suffice to say, I think this book reveals a lot more of Zamyatin's ideas about women than he may have intended.  I just don't know exactly what those ideas are.)

Of particular note is Zamyakin's treatment of free will/freedom as antithetical to happiness. After all, it is true that, since the Fall, humans will, if left to their own devices, make choices that will spell their ruin and end their happiness.  The contrast between God's solution to this problem (loving self-sacrifice) and that of the Benefactor (total domination and control) is quite striking.

A worthwhile and absorbing read. The journal-based style of the book can be a little hard to follow at times, particularly as D-503's thought process deteriorates over time. The overall book is still quite good, however.  If you enjoy any of the other big dystopian novels (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, etc.), you should definitely give this one a try.

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