We by Evgeny Zamyatin (1921)

14 January, 2012

Finish ‘We’ by Evgeny Zamyatin (1921) in the Penguin translation by Clarence Brown (1993).

‘We’ is always sold as the godfather of dystopias, set in a perfect future state where people are known as numbers, and all function according to a regulated Table of Hours. But what lies in the wild country beyond? Our hero, D-503, awakens from his zombie life through his obsession with a mysterious woman, I-330, who reveals to him his true nature, as OneState collapses into rebellion and counter-revolution.

That’s the plot but the real experience of reading this book is bewilderment at its wild and hysterical style, 220 pages of continuous hysteria and feverish delirium as D-503 hallucinates his affair, the streets turn purple, his dreams become real, he obsesses about lips, ears, wild visions. The actual story is sometimes difficult to make out through the feverish prose. Somewhere I read a suggestion that Zamyatin was trying to write an expressionist prose. Maybe more accurate would be that the style attempts in prose what Lissitsky and Rodchenko were doing in Suprematism and Construcutivism, abrupt lines, energy of clashing perspectives, vibrant colours.

Orwell acknowledged that ‘1984’ is indebted to ‘We’. But ‘1984’ is terrifying because it’s so plausible, is imagined down to the tiniest realistic detail, nothing like Zamyatin’s deliriums.

On a completely different tack it’s extraordinary to think that a Petersburg intellectual could create such a sustained flight of fancy while Don Cossacks were killing each other with axes (Sholokhov) and the Red Army in Poland was murdering Jews with clubs and sabers (Babel). What a terrible, terrifying time.

We

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