We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Clarence Brown (book review).

Reading about ‘We’, it was originally released in 1921 by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) and centred on a dystopia and got promptly banned for 60 years. It was also translated into English by Clarence Brown in 1993 and is considered influential on George Orwell’s ‘1984’, although no one says how he got a copy, let alone a translation. A little research an it was originally translated in 1924 by E.P. Dutton.

This is a first person narrative and you don’t discover the character’s name, D-503, until a quarter of the way through the book and you live his life with him than being told what it is like. The text is very descriptive and he comments at one point that picturesque understanding is beyond him. That should make you stop and think. I tend to put it down to the time period it was written in. These days, an author would probably work from that aspect. You only have to look at Daniel Keyes ‘Flowers For Algernon’ to see how well that works. Mind you, a lot of authors work out from making their characters reasonably intelligent and at least middle-class so few attempt this anyway.

Making sense of the reality and you have to recognise everything is done to a schedule and there is a curfew at 11.30 at night. D-503 is given instruction as to who he supposed to have sex with )-90,, despite feeling affection for someone else, I-330. Oh, interestingly, his co-worker R is black. I don’t think Zamyatin was viewing calling R as ‘negro’ as anything else but a descriptive term of the time and they were certainly workmates. When you consider Russia doesn’t have a black population, this is quite a cosmopolitan outlook of people for the time period. Bear in mind I’m keeping an eye on what the Russian state saw that would ban it.

I did wonder how Zamyatin dealt with who or how D-503 was making his account to. It’s something anyone who writes in first person has to think about from time to time. Here, D-503 is filling his journal at night although when his pages get scattered a little further into the book, you do have to hope he’s numbered them and wonder when he fits the time in to sort them out.

It is only in the last few chapters it is revealed that the INTEGRAL (caps throughout this book) is actually some sort of flying vehicle that might have gone into space, although that aspect is vague and that D-503 is one of its three Builders, which changes his importance. But does it? He certainly doesn’t get any extra privileges and he doesn’t really mention his work much in his autographical notes.

If anything, much of this work is D-503’s odd love triangle. With the woman he loves and the one the State wants him to breed with. The descriptive terms is, oddly, on par with how Ian Fleming described undressed women in his James Bond books and probably quite graphic compared to what was in print in the 1920s.

I’m still trying to work out what Russia determines was sedition in this book. D-503 rebelled a bit but pulled back at the end and actually witnessed the rebels being led into the Bell, which becomes obvious is a gas chamber although rather than gas, its more death by vacuum. Details of this are also kept sparse.

Clarence Brown adds a few notes occasionally pointing out problems in translation and what a ‘yunni’ was, he thinks it’s a ‘uniform’, or the context used will make you raise an eyebrow.

This is an odd book for its time. The nature of first person doesn’t clue in much about the reality other than D-503 living it as something normal. Obedience is god and he isn’t one to stray. You would have to wonder why the Russian authorities at the time would have seen Zamyatin. Looking him up, this wasn’t his only book and he was in exile a lot of the time so it might have been a blanket banning because of his status.

GF Willmetts

November 2021

(pub: Penguin Classics, 1993. 226 page paperback. Price: I pulled my copy for about £ 7.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-14-018585-0)

check out website: www.penguinclassics.com

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