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Posts Tagged ‘Russian Dystopian Fiction’

I had got ‘We‘ by Yevgeny Zamyatin years back, because I heard that it inspired George Orwell’s1984‘. I finally read it for #RedOctoberRussianReads.

The story told in ‘We‘ goes like this. The time is the distant future. The world seems to be one united country. People are not called people – they are called numbers, and are given numbers, because numbers are unique. Logic and reason dominate every aspect of their lives – what time they get up, what time they go to sleep, what they do at every hour, every minute of the day is regulated, based on logic. Nothing can happen without the government knowing about it. All houses have transparent walls and doors and everyone can see everyone else. There is only one exception. When a couple are having an intimate time together, they can lower the blinds. For this they have to get advance permission from the authorities. Our main character is D-503, who is a mathematician and scientist, who is building a rocket to reach outer space. Things are going well for D-503 in this logical world, till he meets I-330. I-330 is a beautiful, mysterious woman. And before long D-503 discovers that there is an inner world, inside his mind, which is not based on logic or reason – it is wild, passionate, illogical. D-503 is torn between the logical world that he has always known and this wild passionate thing that he discovers. And then events move at a fast pace and lots of stuff happens. Can we expect anything less in a dystopian novel? How does it all end? You have to read the book to find out.

I haven’t read ‘1984‘ and so it is hard for me to compare. But if ‘We’ was the first ever dystopian novel, it must have created a stir when it first came out. Its publication was not allowed in the Soviet Union and it was published abroad. It later led to lots of problems for Yevgeny Zamyatin and all his works were banned in the Soviet Union and Zamyatin himself had to migrate abroad where he didn’t live long. It is a sad story.

To me, Zamyatin’s story depicts the tussle between reason and logic on one side and the things that make us human – like imagination, love, freedom – on the other side. It is a fascinating thing to watch. The arguments given in the story for both the sides are very insightful and thought-provoking. Zamyatin’s story came out nearly a hundred years back, and in the century that has passed, we seem to have moved more to the logic-and-reason side of things. If we are not careful and things move to their logical conclusion, it wouldn’t be surprising if we end up in a world similar to the one depicted in the book. From that perspective, this book is as relevant today as when it was first published.

I loved most of the characters in the book. Though they don’t have names but have numbers, they have very distinctive personalities. Our scientist D-503, his long-term lover O-90, and the mysterious woman he meets, I-330, are all fascinating and complex characters, whom I loved very much.

The book is filled with beautiful, thought-provoking passages. I am giving a few below.

“I wondered at the ancients who had never realized the utter absurdity of their literature and poetry. The enormous, magnificent power of the literary word was completely wasted. It’s simply ridiculous – everyone wrote anything he pleased. Just as ridiculous and absurd as the fact that the ancients allowed the ocean to beat dully at the shore twenty-four hours a day, while the millions of kilogrammometers of energy residing in the waves went only to heighten lovers’ feelings. But we have extracted electricity from the amorous whisper of the waves; we have transformed the savage, foam-spitting beast into a domestic animal; and in the same way we have tamed and harnessed the once wild element of poetry. Today, poetry is no longer the idle, impudent whistling of a nightingale; poetry is civic service, poetry is useful.”

“Every equation, every formula in the surface world has its corresponding curve or body. But for irrational formulas, for my √–1, we know of no corresponding bodies, we have never seen them…But the horror of it is that these invisible bodies exist, they must, they inevitably must exist : in mathematics, their fantastic, prickly shadows – irrational formulas – pass before us as on a screen. And neither mathematics nor death ever makes a mistake. So that, if we do not see these bodies in our world, there must be, there inevitably must be, a whole vast world for them – there, beyond the surface…”

He : “I hate fog. I am afraid of it.”
She : “That means you love it. You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

I enjoyed reading ‘We‘. Though there have been many dystopian novels since which have explored similar themes, as probably the first ever dystopian novel, Zamyatin’s book was a pioneering effort. This book deserves to be much better known.

Have you read Yevgeny Zamyatin’sWe‘? What do you think about it?

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