We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Book review by Alice C:

Cover of the first American edition.

‘You look in bad shape. You look as if you’re developing a soul’.

I read this dystopian novel in The Second Lockdown. On page 12 we’re told of the Table of Hours, where one’s life, one’s comings and goings, are mapped out in a familiar and comforting timetable and of the veneration of the railway time tables of old. Of our age, to be precise. What better book to read during lockdown – you know where should be – minute by minute. How liberating to get rid of ‘Freedom’, who needs it anyway. The only Freedom you need are two hours daily – ‘personal hours’ – for recreation and exercise. Sound familiar? But our protagonist D503, even wished these away; he wanted full regulation and for the all-powerful Benefactor to demand full control of the whole of his life.

After reading ‘We’, it’s hard not to have sympathy with the anti- lockdown freedom fighters of our own age, who challenged us to tear off our masks, embrace each other and refuse to track and trace. ‘Freedom’ rallies in central Sheffield, urged us to ‘wake up’, to demand our ancient right to freedom, championing common law and human rights.

But trust me, I remained masked, socially distant and always obeyed a request to track and trace. When push came to shove, we gave up our ‘freedoms’ for the greater good. To fight the pandemic and save lives. The people of One-State gave up their Freedoms to live in a germ free, peaceful society ruled by reason, rationality and technology, where to have imagination and individuality are capital crimes.

Zamyatin’s style is conversational, as protagonist D503, our guide, shows us round his city, proud of its order and efficiency, and relates how, after many years of struggle, the inhabitants have accepted living within the Green Wall. Now all cities are cut off from each other after two hundred years of war destroyed roads and other means of communication. Inhabitants of One-State are happy with the Norm (the New Normal), our guide confidingly whispers in our ear.

The very popular ‘Table of Hours’ tabulates when to rise, wash, eat, work, end work, take exercise, sleep. Sexual partners pre-selected and allocated an hour a week, reproduction strictly controlled. Love, sex and sexual jealousy, said to be the ‘denominator and numerator’ of happiness, everyone is designated a sexual partner by number, so those ‘whose love nobody wants’ are never left on the shelf. Time is strictly allocated for exercise – Taylor exercises – believed to be inspired by Fredrick Taylor, whose Time and Motion studies for efficiency at work were popular when ‘We’ was written in the early 1920’s..

There are no names, no people, no gender distinctions in One State, only numbers.

After reading the first few pages, one realises this book is a satire and not surprisingly, written in 1921 in Russian, it was threatening to a very real ‘OneState’, the Soviet Union. In ‘We’, freedom is seen as a primitive state, where people live like animals, mired in their original ape-like hairy depths. Some unfortunates still live like animals, beyond the Green Wall, in the state called Mephi. Of course, these ‘primitives’ are the true freedom fighters of the novel and as such are deeply troubling to One-State and subject to constant surveillance by the Guardian spies.

In the Soviet Union, the real Benefactor (Joseph Stalin) refused to publish the book, but to everyone’s surprise, granted Zamyatin permission to leave Russian to live in Paris, rather than send him to the Gulag. Thus, ‘We’ was published in France in 1929, suppressed in his homeland until a Russian version appeared in 1972.

D503 is a scientist, a mathematician, whose world is logic, reason, number, order – his speech disjointed as he struggles to describe the indescribable, concepts he has no words for, short unfinished sentences, which to our 21st century ears sounds interestingly post-modern and experimental in style. He is a square who cannot describe being a square.

One-State is a world where freedom and criminality are linked. D503 believes when freedoms are reduced to zero, a person can commit no crime. Except crimes against the State, of course. All numbers rejoice at public executions – all totalitarian states seem to have these, in order to encourage the others, no doubt – and death is seen as a function of living. Writing poetry is government service, as poetry is useful. Numbers have long ago given up beautifying their world with flowers, no point – they are part of the savage world banished behind the Green Wall. They value only what is rational and useful, like machines and boots.

In the paradise of non-Freedom, in One-State, no travel is allowed. Numbers must stay in their homes. During our First Lockdown, many people, myself included, felt strangely free after being told I must stay at home, be paid not to work, go out once a day, to the park, to walk in the sun. But soon I missed contact with people in all their unpredictable glory. ‘We’ is the journey of our protagonist D503 down into the depths of feeling, to experience feelings he has no words for – ancient urges and drives, and imagination, unearthed by, what else, the old story – love, lust and sex with beautiful rebel leader I330, who we first meet on a flight deck, described as looking, in her headphone helmet, like a winged Valkyrie. D503 always feared he had ‘primitive drives’ when he looked at his hairy hands. And so he does, but confused, he has no language to describe his burgeoning new identity and how to answer the question, ‘who am I (now)?’

D503 is developing a soul. In turmoil he visits the Medical Bureau, to be told he is developing depths, his condition, like having lumps and bumps on the skin, is incurable. Awakened by love and passion, he is now permeable, sensitive to experiences, which will always be with him. D503 is horrified when the doctor suggests surgery to extirpate the imagination and offers to preserve him in alcohol, for research, in order to ward off future outbreaks of numbers developing souls. D503 now has a softening of the surface which should be diamond hard.

D503 struggles with the idea of having a soul. He cannot see it – does it exist, he asks himself. He puts his boots inside his wardrobe – he can’t see them; do they still exist? Why is one real and the other not? Why is one a disease and the other not? His experiences defy rationality, he is in turmoil, wanting ‘only full stops, and not question marks’.

Just before I read, ‘We’, I read Nana, by Emile Zola. Strangely, I felt there were parallels in the two books. If one of Nana’s themes is how male sexual desire can be manipulated by some women, in some circumstances, to achieve their own ends, this was also evident in ‘We’. But I bear in mind both were written from a male perspective. In ‘We’, D503 is driven by his desire for I302. He is willing to transgress the rigid laws of One-State, to be with her, to risk torture and death by helping her to bring down One-State and escape to Mephi, the true paradise, beyond the Green Wall.

Set in the twenty-sixth century, ‘We’ describes a futurist dystopia, a world based on rational values, where human action is expressed through mathematical equations. However, human motivation, dreams and drives, as we would recognise them, do exist. Like gender roles, traditional values raise their heads – the need for sexual faithfulness between numbers and to have a family of one’s own, for example. D503 is driven by desire for I302 and rosy cheeked O, by her desire to become pregnant, to have her own baby, for which she is willing to die. She does, in fact, escape, with D503’s help, over the Wall into Mephi.

I enjoyed the analysis of Power towards the end of ‘We’, developing interesting ideas about freedom and ‘rights’. D503 thinks the source of right is power. Right is a function of power. He illustrates this by contrasting the weights of a gram and a ton. This is the difference between the ‘I’ and the ‘We’ (OneState), he tells us. To assert that ‘I’ has rights with respect to the State is the same as asserting a gram weighs the same as a ton. To the ton goes rights; to the gram goes duties. The path from feeling you are nothing to feeling greatness is – according to D503, is to forget you are a gram and feel yourself a millionth part of a ton. We = OneState. Interesting.

The novel ends with revolution and rebellion. But the Guardians prevail quelling the insurrection with stun guns (tasers?), but not before ‘the hairy-handed savage leaps out ‘of our hero, D503 as he runs to protect the woman he loves. To no avail, rebellion silenced, its leaders executed, in public, under a Bell, with air slowly pumped out, more reminiscent of cruel medieval torture than futuristic cold, clean, quick dispatch.

D503, surprisingly, is spared. Perhaps he is too clever and useful to the Benefactor. He merely has his head opened up and his imagination extirpated. In order to lose consciousness of himself. Only the eye with an eyelash in it, only a hand with a swollen finger, only a mouldy tooth is conscious of itself. The healthy eye doesn’t know of its own existence. Self-consciousness itself is a disease. Thus eventually, D503 expresses gratitude to the Benefactor, experiences transcendent peace; feels a oneness and harmony with everything around him, suffused with joy. He is unaffected by the death of his lover, who he now describes as ‘that woman’. He’s pleased a new wall is being erected, with high voltage wires. To separate his home from chaos. He says:’ I hope we’ll win. I’m certain we’ll win. Because reason has to win’.

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