Thursday, July 7, 2011

We As The Original Dystopian Novel

WeNinety years ago, Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote a novel that sparked scores of well-regarded riffs and rips, many of which are better known. But very much like all of his celebrated copycats, Zamyatin's book was inspired by experience — the Russian Revolution.

For Zamyatin, it took two years to write; significantly less time for the state to ban it. In fact, We was the first work banned by Goskomizdat, better known as the newly created State Committee for Publishing in the Soviet Union a.k.a. censorship bureau.

Among best known authors and books to draw upon its 200-plus content include George Orwell's 1984, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano (indirectly, because he ripped Brave New World), Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and possibly Ayn Rand's Anthem. As the original satire against dystopia, there is an irony in how often it was treated as collective property.

We and the story of D-503.

We is the story of D-503, a state mathematician and chief engineer of the spaceship Integral, which is 120 days out from completion. The purpose of the craft is simple enough. It will introduce the One State to other planets in the solar system before subjugating them, using force as necessary.

This is how the story starts, with D-503 writing down the announcement that all "numbers" will compose treaties, epic poems, manifestos, and odes of propaganda about the One State. And if those compositions don't win over outer worlds, then delivering them mathematically infallible happiness to save them from their primitive state of freedom is inevitable.

WeThere is only problem with the One State plan. D-503 meets I-330 who dresses a little differently than everyone else. She entices D-503 to visit the historic Ancient House, the only opaque building in One State, which is constructed entirely out of glass. Not surprisingly, it is there that I-330 reveals that she is part of a group plotting to bring down the state.

What is most striking about reading the novel, constructed as a personal journal, is the inner turmoil D-503 feels after being exposed to the prospects of free will, love, and individual purpose. And while he can no longer imagine living in a world without such complexity, he also suffers from being able to return to certitude and servitude where millions of people get up as one.

As a whole, We dramatizes the struggle between freedom and security, nature and artifice, spirit and order. It celebrates the heretic, which the author considered a valued trait among artists. And despite the bleak ending, there is some hope in the execution that, win or lose, rebellions are both infinite and unavoidable.

"True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics." — Yevgeny Zamyatin

Although considered one of the first Soviet dissidents, Zamyatin was originally arrested and exiled from Russia not for being critical of communism but for supporting the Bolsheviks in 1905 (which he also supported during the October Revolution), and a second time for an anti-military story, Na Kulichkah.

As punishment, he was first banished to the northern shipyard of Kem and then Engand, where he was in charge of design and building of the largest Russian icebreaker, St. Aleksandr Nevsky, during World War I. It was after the Russian Revolution of 1917 that he returned, only to find that the quality of life — culture, freedoms, and human values — had quickly deteriorated after the Russian Revolution.

Yevgeny ZamyatinAfter We was rejected for publication, Zamyatin arranged for the manuscript of his novel to be smuggled out for publication in 1924. The publishing of the novel in English immediately led to him being ostracized in Russia, with all of his plays banned. Zamyatin requested exile in 1931, appealing to Joseph Stalin. Stalin granted his request, and he settled with his wife in Paris.

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack a year after collaborating with French film director Jean Renoir on the 1936 adaptation of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, which he cowrote. We was censored in Russia until 1988.

We By Yevgeny Zamyatin Scores 9.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

We is rich with Zamyatin's personal experience; engineering prowess, initial devotion, and age of D-503. While it is much more metaphorical than Orwell's 1984, therein lies the beauty of his story and the parallels that are drawn upon it. Just as D-503 is eventually freed from the burden of imagination, Zamyatin unexpectedly foreshadows his own censorship, deemed necessary in order for him to be a happy citizen.

There are several translations of We, with some of the most recent being Natasha Randall on Amazon. You can also find a 2011 translation of We from Golgotha Press on iBooks or for the Nook via Barnes & Noble. You can also find an audiobook on iTunes. Grover Gardner narrates; his voice may take some getting used to for an unabridged 7-hour read.
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