BOOK REVIEW: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

What is interesting about literature written in the past is the omnipotent manner with which one, from our saggy hi-tech sofas in the future, can now read it: the time capsule quality of it. A quality so much more heightened when reading someone’s version of the future as written in the past, often wildly off key with our own present version of what the future might be.

As it’s likely impossible to write a review of Zamyatin’s We without at least alluding to the connection with George Orwell, I’ll get right to it. This is a novel I have known about for many years, largely due to the Orwell connection; rumours of Orwell stealing ideas from it, ripping it off, whatever; so it was a pleasure to finally pull it to the top of my reading list and see what all the fuss was about. Orwell wrote a review of We in 1946, in which he suggests Huxley must have been highly influenced by it. So, historically, it’s a very interesting document. Does that make it a great book? I’m not so sure. Though, before I attempt to go any further, let me hang out my caveats by saying I am no sci-fi expert: Ursula K. Le Guin, on the other hand, who no doubt is, writes in the introduction of the Folio Society edition that she ‘consider[s We] the best single work of science fiction yet written’. So, who am I to argue? Although Le Guin did write that a while ago (1973) and she did elsewhere suggest that her own feminism might have a few holes in it …

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Illustration by Kit Russell from The Folio Society edition of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin ©Kit Russell 2018

which leads me to the issue of Zamyatin’s female characters. Not something Orwell is likely to have spent too much time mulling over back in 1946. The two main female ‘numbers’ — all characters in the world of We are numbers rather than named individuals, an idea that might seem cliché now, but which, in 1921, predated the Holocaust by some twenty years — represent a form of good and evil, the homely vs. the wicked, the mother/wife vs. the temptress/mistress. As tiring as this is, like all good lady readers, I excuse Mr. Zamyatin time and again for his context, his upbringing, and so on and so forth. But by page 33’s ‘You women Numbers! You’re so prejudiced it’s hopeless.’ and ‘Just like a woman!’ I had well and truly had enough of it. And that’s not to even get started on the (male) poet character (who at least has a vocation) with the ‘disgusting African lips’. It’s uncomfortable reading, and leads me to spend a large part of the novel wondering what our duty should be surrounding art of yore: where does it belong? How should it be contextualised? Where and when should it be saved?

There is no doubt that there is and will continue to be interest in this book. The world it creates is atmospherically gorgeous and sublime, all dripping pink yellow fogscapes and glassy sunbeams and an all-pervading mist. It’s a world of vanilla Monet oil paintings dragged backwards through a Bladerunner hedge. There’s no doubt it’s beautiful. And some of the passages some of the time, when you step back and recall when it was written, where it was written, are thought-provoking and eerie.

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Illustration by Kit Russell from The Folio Society edition of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin ©Kit Russell 2018

Take the lines, ‘walls are the basis of everything human,’ and ‘Man ceased to be a wild animal when he built the first wall,’ which, from the wobbly vantage point of politics today allows a caustic, knowing snort to creep out onto the page. There are many such moments in dystopia where past insights appear so frightening because it is only the rudimentary details that have changed. Our world may have changed, but the ideas one has within it remain limited. Or take the following, ‘no one is one but only one of’ (italics Yevgeny’s), which smacks of Communism, of militant ants, robots, unimportant parts of a greater whole, but which can also be read in terms of ecosystems, neighbours, connections, how one relates to all others. Or ‘The ideal is that state of affairs where nothing ever happens anymore,’ which reminds one that the Russians were way ahead in terms of existentialism than the more coveted 1940s Franco-Existentialist, and which, in our hyper-accelerated world of everything-at-once, everything-now, everything-already, everything-again, sounds like a Utopian call of prayer for the good old days.

There are almost religious descriptions of the weather (‘the blessed sun’) as existing outside the Truman dome of transparency in which the numbers dwell, which feel otherworldly and haunting and remain poetic throughout. The format of the novel as a series of Reports hastily written during allocated evening ‘private hours’, in which the blinds are allowed to be drawn, would feel innovative and immersive were they not riddled with ellipses every four to five words, leading the work to instead feel unfinished and the plot remain all but impenetrable in places.

Despite a few minor contradictions in terms of pronouns, and a bit of overly contrived ‘my dear planetary readers wherever and whenever you might be reading this’ (wink wink, nudge nudge) the world Zamyatin creates feels believable and thorough, with lots of sweet little sci-fi details (systematic and rationed sex complete with ticketing system; imagination as a disease of the olden days; and, in this mathematical future, the Railroad Timetable exists as one of the great monuments of ancient literature). And bound up in such an elegant and moody hardback edition as The Folio Society have here created, sprinkled with trippy Fritz-Langian illustration pages (Kit Russell, guys), and headed by chapters set in Wells Grotesque, which might just be my new favourite font, particularly when used in the title itself, where the W sits triumphantly on the stage created by the spine of the overturned E… but I digress.

Ultimately, sadly, this novel fell short for me, and if Orwell (and to a lesser extent, Huxley) did take some of Zamytin’s ideas and rework them, then so much the better for all of us. Between the difficulties of a dated narration and the stop-start stagger of the ellipses, I found myself retreating from engagement with the plot, and by the grand finale, my jaded, desensitised future self had seen and read too much that was too similar to be blown away on a blessed blistery breeze.

We is published by The Folio Society and is available to purchase here.

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Yevgeny Zamyatin

Yevgeny Zamyatin was an author, playwright, and naval engineer. Born in 1884 in the town of Lebedyan, Russia, he showed an early enthusiasm for literature. He studied naval engineering at St Petersburg Polytechnic University, but his studies were interrupted by his imprisonment after the failed 1905 Revolution. His experiences at the hands of the Tsarist police influenced his first published story, ‘Alone’ (1908). In 1916 Zamyatin was sent to England to oversee the construction of Russian ice-breakers, and while there wrote two novellas satirising English life, The Islanders and The Fisher of Men. He returned to Russia upon hearing of the revolt against Tsarist rule in 1917 and initially supported the Bolsheviks. His gradual disillusionment with the regime — particularly its increasing levels of state repression — along with what was viewed as a slander against Bolshevism led We to be the first book to be banned in the Soviet Union. His position in Russia becoming uncertain, Zamyatin left for Paris, where he died in 1937.

Reviewed by Lydia Unsworth

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