Zamyatin's We

February 1: Yevgeny Zamyatin was born on this day in 1884—somewhat ironically, as Zamyatin's dystopian novel, We, anticipates Orwell's 1984 (and anticipates Huxley's Brave New World even more so, a point which Orwell made in his 1946 review of We). The publication of Zamyatin's book in 1921 certainly seemed to confirm his warnings about totalitarianism: the Russian authorities banned We as a "malicious slander against socialism," and more than once imprisoned Zamyatin before exiling him. For its prescience and its literary offspring, critic Martin Seymour-Smith has We on his list of "100 Most Influential Books Ever Written."

 

We presents life in 2600, by which time all citizens of the One State—or almost all, as a revolution is brewing—are happily numbered and regimented, right down to the Sex Hour. In the passage below, D-503 is out for a springtime walk (the daily walk is compulsory) with O-90 (she is just 10 centimeters short of the Maternal Normal) as the Music Plant (it plays one song, "The March of the One State") booms away in the background. D-503 is a mathematician-engineer, and the scene before him inspires both awe and revolution:

And then, just the way it was this morning in the hangar, I saw again, as though right then for the first time in my life, I saw everything: the unalterably straight streets, the sparkling glass of the sidewalks, the divine parallelepipeds of the transparent dwellings, the squared harmony of our gray-blue ranks. And so I felt that I—not generations of people, but I myself—I had conquered the old God and the old life, I myself had created all this, and I'm like a tower, I'm afraid to move my elbow lest walls, cupolas, machines tumble in fragments about me.

Then—a leap across centuries, from + to – (evidently an association by contrast)—I suddenly remembered a picture I had seen in a museum: one of their avenues, out of the twentieth century, dazzlingly motley, a teemng crush of people, wheels, animals, posters, trees, colors, birds…. And they say that this had really existed—could exist. It seemed so incredible, so preposterous that I could not contain myself and burst out laughing.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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