We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Our narrator, D-503, is a cipher in the utopian One State. He is the Chief Builder of the Integral, a rocket ship that is to be sent out into the universe, bringing uniformity and happiness to all alien species who may be out there still messily living with free will. All ciphers have been encouraged to prepare something for inclusion on the mission – poems of praise to the Benefactor who serves as a replacement for God in this society. D-503 decides to keep a journal of his daily life – this journal that we are reading – as his contribution. But D-503 is about to meet a woman – I-330 – who will disrupt his contented existence and lead him to reconsider just how utopian life in the One State really is…

First a word on translations. I started with the Momentum publication of this which as far as I can see doesn’t credit the translator by name. It’s dreadful – so bad I found it almost unreadable and was about to abandon the book completely at the 30% mark. However, I then changed to the Vintage Classics edition translated by Natasha Randall, which is excellent – like reading a different book. So if you decide to read this, make sure you check the translation first.

Even given the much better experience of the good translation, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to be as fulsome in praise of this as I’d like. D-503 is a mathematician, so his narration is full of mathematical metaphors and everything is described in vaguely mathematical terms. It’s well enough done, but I found it tedious. Zamyatin also has a technique of leaving sentences unfinished and uses ellipses even more than I do… This gives a sensation of the speed of events, of the increasing confusion D-503 is feeling, but again I found it got pretty tiresome after a bit.

Book 18 0f 90

It also has an issue that I think may be really more my problem than the book’s, an issue I’ve found with other early dystopian fiction: namely, that I think the societies they describe sound considerably more attractive than the savage societies they hold up as the better alternative. What exactly is so wrong with being happy? I get it – I really do – that they achieve their happiness at the expense of free will, that their lives are unexciting because everything is decided for them, that art and literature have no real place in such societies; and no, I don’t aspire to that kind of society. But the flaw, if it is one, is that the characters are happy in their lives until they discover how much better it is to be miserable, chewed up by desire and jealousy, living lives that are nasty, brutish and short. In We, the savage society has reverted almost to chimp lifestyle – I don’t aspire to that either! Current dystopian fiction is much more likely to have the characters be fundamentally unhappy in their regimented societies, to be aware of how restricted and unfulfilling their lives are, and to have something more appealing to aim for. This works so much better for me. I had exactly the same issue with Huxley’s Brave New World when I read it at school – the characters liked their lives and were happy, until savagery burst in to make them realise what they’d been missing – unregimented sex, mainly, which is pretty much what sets D-503 off too…

This book, written in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, has an eerie familiarity about it. This is because it has basically the same story as both Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, both of which have borrowed so heavily from it it feels close to theft. Personally, I’m a bit baffled by the timing – I wouldn’t have thought Bolshevik Russia had reached anything close to this kind of society as early as 1920, while the civil war was still being fought. Zamyatin was either very prescient or he was writing as much about the general philosophical zeitgeist of the time as about the realities of his society – I suspect probably a bit of both. Marxism was on the rise, some authors were presenting utopian societies as a good thing, and Zamyatin references Taylorism more than once – something I wasn’t familiar with but which seems to have been an extreme form of regimentation within the workplace; what in my youth we called ‘time and motion studies’ – the desire of management to turn workers into unthinking, exhausted drones or human robots. (That’s not necessarily how management would have described it, but I was a worker bee back then… 😉 )

Yevgeny Zamyatin

The book therefore feels as if it’s arguing against philosophical ideas about utopias rather than reality, as does Brave New World from what I remember. 1984, on the other hand, while using the same basic story, is very specifically arguing against the actual rise of totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century, and Orwell’s characters give no impression of being in any way “happy”. This makes it by far the more powerful book of the three from my perspective and it’s also much better written (though obviously Zamyatin is at a disadvantage with me on that score because I have to rely on translators). In fact, We feels to me much more like North Korean style totalitarianism than the Soviet version – both may have been aiming for the same, but possibly North Korea’s smaller size and more uniform population has enabled the Kim clan to more fully achieve and sustain a completely regimented society entirely dependent on the whim of its God-like “benefactor”. And I doubt anyone thinks the North Koreans are actually happy, however much they’re forced to appear to be.

Had I read this first, the ideas in it would have felt more original, as indeed they were when it was written. So although I didn’t find it the most pleasurable reading experience, I still highly recommend it as a classic that has helped to shape so much later literature. Maybe the secret is to read all the world’s literature in strict chronological order. Now isn’t that a nice dystopian thought to end on?

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31 thoughts on “We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

  1. I couldn’t agree more, FictionFan, about the importance of a quality translation. As you show here, it makes all the difference in the world. You make an interesting point, too, about the sort of society we’re talking about here. Hmm…..I’d have to think about that one, but I do see what you’re saying. And sometimes, even if those classic stories aren’t completely splendid, they are often work reading just to learn the ideas that the writers had.

    • I’ve often noticed differences in translation but this was like the riciculous and the sublime. The first one read like it had been translated by Google Translate or something! Yes, I do see where the authors are coming from, and of course I agree that brainwashed happiness isn’t really an aspirational lifestyle choice! But to go from contented brainwashed happiness to savage misery doesn’t seem like much of an improvement… 😉 But it was fascinating to see just how much both Huxley and Orwell, and so mnay other writers, had clearly been influenced by this…

  2. Wow. So this is the book that inspired so many other books. How sad that the first translation was so bad.

    I’m so over dystopians. So many were published in the last decade. Many of them seem the same.

    • It really was bad – it was if it had been translated by Google Translate or something!

      I think the original dystopian novels were making serious political points, whereas often recent ones have just been an excuse for a kind of fantasy adventure – which is fine, of course, but I don’t think they’ll survive the way the original ones have…

    • Haha – exactly! Warm, comfortable, well-fed and brainwashed, or cold, naked, hairy, and living in trees but free. Hmm… I can’t say either would be my ideal existence… 😉

  3. Thank you for wading through this one (so I won’t have to!). And to think you had to trudge through two versions, too! Well, it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but that’s what makes a horse race, I guess. Glad it wasn’t too awful for you!

    • Haha – I quite enjoyed it! But I always enjoy a book that makes some kind of political point so long as there’s a decent story too. 1984 definitely has a better story… 🙂

  4. Whimpers abjectly at the idea of reading ‘all the world’s literature in strict chronological order Shuts self in a cupboard, whispering Reading the twentieth….reading the twentieth….I do keep intending to resume, but heaven knows when

    • Hahaha! Sorry! I didn’t mean to reopen old wounds! I still think you should ditch the non-fiction aspect… you could always go back to that later, or do it side-by-side, but it was that that made you grind to a halt as far as I remember. I’m thinking about doing a century of Scottish fiction and crime maybe… it might be fun if we could find a way somehow to do some comparing and contrasting… 😀

  5. Yeah, this reaaaallllyyy doesn’t sound like something I’d like, but I applaud you for tackling it! Do you know that I’ve never read Brave New World or 1984?? I think I should try at least one of those next year. It’s almost embarrassing.

    • Hahaha – I don’t think I’ll have sold this one to many people really! 😉 If you’re only going to read one, then I would strongly recommend 1984 – I think it’s the best of them by miles. Mind you, I literally haven’t read Brave New World in over forty years, so my memory might be doing it an injustice…

  6. What an interesting review which picks up on the points that have made me avoid the majority of books that are dystopian fiction, although I was a fan of 1984. Also a good point made about the importance of a good translator.

    • I think 1984 is head and shoulders above nearly all other dystopian fiction I’ve read, including this one. Orwell might have ‘borrowed’ the story but he made it so much better I have to forgive him… 😉 Yes, these two translations really highlighted how a translation can make or break a book…

  7. I want to say something about this post. But, Fiction Fan, I saw that picture. That picture of Tommy and Tuppence wishing us Merry Christmas. And I was distracted. Please could you tell your cats that I love them. 🙂

  8. I love reading dystopian literature from decades ago, mainly because there are so many humourous aspects to it. But they can also seem really creepy, because things the older literature labels as ‘sad or horrific’ may be common day to us now, which leads me to think-how far have we really come?

    • What always surprises me about visions of the future is how wrong they mostly got it, even when they got some aspects right! Yeah, we did end up with some totalitarian regimes, but we also ended up with lots of multi-coloured, diverse societies where people live together in relative harmony – I’m afraid these early sci-fi books always assume the whole world will have turned into white heterosexual American males… or in this case Russian!

  9. I like dystopian fiction and will get to this eventually, will look out for the recommended translation. Am over those aimed at the young adult market though, they also borrow too heavily from each other without necessarily doing any better than their predecessors. Reading in chronological order makes sense but wow, what an undertaking… maybe somebody could write a book about that happening…

  10. I read Brave New World recently and the thing I couldn’t get over was the dichotomy: frequent sex, perfect body, happiness VS failing body, poor health, Shakespeare and the Bible. It wasn’t a hard choice for me, either. 1984 people were definitely miserable, giving us a reason to root for a resistance movement.

    • Yes, exactly! I’m glad it’s not just me then! I got into a lot of trouble with my teachers for arguing that the ‘evil’ society in Brave New World sounded far better than the ‘good’ one… 😉

  11. I have a Turkish translation of this book and it’s supposed to be really good. This has been waiting in my bookshelf for a while.. Unfortunately too many new releases made it a bit neglected. After seeing your review I think I should make time to read it!!

    • Ha – those new releases are killers! I think all new books should be banned till we all catch up with the old ones… 😉 I certainly think this is one that’s worth reading – it seems to have been so influential on so many other great authors. I’d love to know what you think of it – and how well it works in Turkish!

      Thanks for popping by and commenting… 😀

  12. Interesting to hear someone else’s views on this book. I was first alerted to it by Bernard Crick’s biography of George Orwell. An unnerving and strange reading experience, personally, I loved it.

    • It was another blogger who headed me towards it originally. I was fascinated to see how much of an influence it had clearly been on both Orwell and Huxley. One day I must get around to re-reading Brave New World – it’s been a long time…

      Thanks for popping in and commenting. 🙂

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