Sep 21, 2009

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin


Pretty much the grandfather of the classic, totalitarian dystopias. 1984, Brave New World, Kallocain - this novel helped spawn them all. Often, I'll find that I don't enjoy a book that's become this huge influence, preferring the distilled version found in later works. In this case, however, it turns out that the original charmed me in ways that the later novel (no matter how much I did enjoy them) simply couldn't.

Orwell's best work is very spare and stripped down, for example, but Zamyatin's writing in We is almost romantic. His main character, D-503, tell the whole story as a sort of love poem. At first, he is driven by love of state, love of belonging, love of work. As he progresses, he falls not only for mysterious and rebellious I-330, he also freely expresses his feelings for the voluptuous O-90 and their friend/her other lover R-13. His journal style matches this outpouring of emotion. Just riding in an air car comes out as:

Five minutes later, we were already in the areo. The blue majolica of the Maytime sky; the light sun in its own golden aero buzzing after us, neither falling behind nor overtaking us. And ahead of us - a cloud, white as a cataract, preposterous and puffed out like the cheeks of an ancient cupid, and somehow disturbing. Our front window is up. Wind, drying the lips. Involuntarily, you lick them all the time, and all the time you think of lips.

"And all the time you think of lips." I didn't find anything that simply beautiful in 1984. And that feeling remains until the end, even though the narrator's soul is lost, the people themselves may be rescued. It's no accident that this is shown by the flight of birds, formerly banned from the city. All of We, from the space craft to the love stories, is a longing toward flight.


Rhiannon Hart said...

I have to read this, then, as I love 1984 and BNW. The writing sounds gorgeous, though I do like the simplicity of Orwell and the wit of Huxley.

downtown guy said...

Try We and tell me what you think. It's my favorite of those three.

leilalatex said...

Clearly I must read this.

downtown guy said...

Are you gonna be down here for any of the holidays? I can loan you my copy.

Doc said...

I burned through every classic dystopian novel I could find when I was a freshman in college. I agree that this one was probably the standout for me. I like 1984 and Brave New World. I tolerated Anthem. But We surprised me. It's worth saying, too, that translation matters.