We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I posted a picture of this book on social media recently prompting a good friend to remark that he read it 50 (fifty!) years ago. And it was already nearly 50 years old by then. Written originally in Zamyatin’s native Russian in the 1920’s, it wouldn’t appear in print in his homeland until the 1980’s. There have been various translations over the lifetime of the book. My copy is the 1996 Clarence Brown translation, which seems to be universally acknowledged as faithful to the original.

Often, probably too often, We is referred to as the book which inspired George Orwell’s 1984. I don’t dispute the comparison, and the timing is certainly right, I’m looking forward to re-reading the Orwell classic to make my own mind up about this. As an aside, Aldus Huxley is rumoured to have been unlikely to have had a chance to read We before publishing Brave New World.

None of that mattered once I’d sat down with the book, it is a fine piece of stand alone literature. I’m a sucker for a good dystopia, but this is so much more than that. It’s more of an anti-utopia I reckon.

Set in One State, a world where nature and the ancient ways are excluded by a green wall. One State is ruled by The Benefactor, to whom all humans now both worship and service. It is narrated in the first person, by way of a series of written records to be carried to other worlds, by our protagonist, D-503 (people all have code numbers instead of names).

It is an intense read, it doesn’t have the grand gestures or jingoism of other dystopian fiction. The narrator gives us the story of rebellion and glimpses of past worlds (as well as the life still happening outside the wall) with a very personal, intimate and increasingly emotional delivery.

Like 1984’s Winston, D-503 is drawn into becoming involved with anti-One State thoughts by a woman. I-330, as she is known, is a corrupter, seducer but more, she is a leader, capable of influencing even the most loyal minds to follow her rebellion.

Often the prose is, to use modern slang, quite ‘naval gazing’ and, like I say, very personal to D-503. His mental health deteriorates and improves in waves as his loyalties are drawn from side to side. I sometimes found the abstract telling of his thoughts quite challenging and there was a bit of re-reading as I tried to uncover his motives.

I imagine generations of people have read We and used the story to hold a mirror to the fears of whichever time it was being read in. That the masses actually felt that One State was utopia, perhaps echoes the fears of what is sometimes imagined to be socialism, certainly communism. But, conversely, the tables could be turned and fears of a fascist state with a leader who can’t be removed are also here.

It would be churlish of me to expand further and spoil the plot. We is a powerful and deeply thought provoking book which does require the reader to get involved in order to enjoy its full impact. Don’t expect a racy, pacey, hard hitting dystopia, but do expect to be challenged and maybe need to look away occasionally as the text provokes your own reactions.

If I’m going to be ever able to say “I read We fifty years ago” I will need to live to an unlikely age…….

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