Monday, August 22, 2011
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
This week’s “Something New” The Fat Years is a dystopia set in the very immediate future, the merest tick away from present reality. As this week’s “Something Old”, I choose a really long-range forecast – a dystopia set about six hundred years hence.
It isn’t only the matter of contrast that brings it to mind, however. There’s also the fact that both dystopias were written by insiders.
The Fat Years is not a foreigner’s vision of a dubious Chinese future. It was written by a Chinese man who chooses now to live in mainland China, who is a part (albeit a suspected part) of the country’s intellectual elite, and who knows China’s current socio-political scene intimately.
Similarly, We was written by a Russian, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), who had been briefly imprisoned for dissent by the old Tsarist regime; who had at first welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution and was at one time secretary of the Soviet writers’ union; but who fell out of love with the new Communist regime’s repressiveness, terror and censorship. He was imprisoned briefly by the new regime too, then coerced into leaving Russia in 1930. He spent his last years in exile, dying in Paris in 1937.
The dystopia of We was created in protest against the regimented, rationalised society which destroyed the individual, the “I”, and insisted only on the identity of the collective, the “we” of the title.
In the 26th century, after a catastrophic long-term war, the perfect world state has been created. It is overseen by a “Benefactor” who is unanimously, and mindlessly, elected. People are valued only as constructive units, not as individuals. To delete individuality, men and women are no longer identified by personal names, but by combinations of letters and numbers. The population live in transparent glass-walled buildings so that their private activities may always be observed by the state’s security apparatus, known as the “Guardians”. The concepts of love, marriage and the family have been abolished. Sexual intercourse is rationed, and occurs between men and women who sign and countersign short-term contracts for the use of each other’s body. Such intercourse is permitted for one standard hour each day, the only hour when the blinds are drawn down in the glass-walled buildings.
The novel has a minimalist plot. Its hero and first-person narrator is a mathematician, D-503, engaged by the state to help design a spacecraft that will carry the world state’s ideas to the rest of the universe. The very conformist D-503 meets and is disturbingly attracted to a woman, I-330, who does not behave as members of the state are supposed to behave. She is outspoken, she employs seductive techniques that are far removed from coldly contractual sex, and she seems to know something about the defunct idea of love.
Gradually D-503 discovers that I-330 is part of a resistance movement against the state, who do more subversive things than having sexual intercourse when the blinds are down. He also discovers that there is a world outside the walls of the perfect state, a primitive world of hair-covered human beings who pose a threat to the planned city D-503 knows. (At this point, I wonder if Zamyatin wasn’t acquainted with the two species descended from humanity – the gutless, civilized Eloi and the brutal, animalistic Morlocks – in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.)
As We is a novel worth hunting out and reading, I won’t give away the specifics of the ending, except to say that it is both depressing and ambiguous. Zamyatin leaves it uncertain whether the regimented, conformist, planned society will prevail over wild, rebellious, instinctive, atavistic humanity or not. But his plot does include some nightmarish ideas on enforced conformity. Among other things, there is a sort of lobotomy, using “x-rays” to cut out the faculty of imagination, practised by the “Guardians” to ensure the unquestioning obedience of potentially dissident citizens.
The simple, schematic plot has sexually-attracted individuals destroyed by a future conformist slate. This immediately makes us think of the two best-known English-language dystopias - the thwarted love and destruction of “the Savage” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and the doomed affair of Winston Smith and Julia in George Orwell’s 1984 (1948). There is a good reason for this. Huxley specifically denied that he had been influenced by Zamyatin’s novel, but it is quite clear that he knew We. Orwell first read and reviewed We in the same year that he started writing 1984. (He read We in a French-language translation called Nous Les Autres as the book then had such limited circulation that he couldn’t find an English-language one).
Orwell made no secret of the novel’s influence on him, but later hostile critics of Orwell (especially those on that part of the Left who resented his anti-Stalinism) used the similarities between We and 1984 to imply plagiarism. They had some things to work with. The concept of the “Benefactor” is very similar to Orwell’s “Big Brother” and the general trajectory of the story is the same, including the shocking ending.
Yet they are very different novels. We is more speculative, and set much further in the future, than 1984. Orwell emphasizes the physical brutality of the totalitarian state. Zamyatin emphasizes the mindlessness of a conformist state. The authors’ styles have little in common. 1984 is more densely written, more consistently dour, and frankly the more finished literary work. We is sometimes almost playful or sardonic in tone (like one of Kafka’s fables – or sections of Brave New World). It is also, truth to tell, a little messy, being rather episodic and inconsistent in narration.
Critics have been quite right to point out the many targets of Zamyatin’s satire. We seems to have been influenced in part by Zamyatin’s time in England, where he acted as a ship-builder and first saw industrial labour regimented according to the time-and-motion principles of what was once called “Taylorism”. This clearly fed into his satire on mindless conformity. General tendencies to conformity brought about by industrialisation are a clear target. In We, the desire of the world state to conquer the universe could be read as jaded comment on imperialism.
Yet, more than anything, it was the early phases of the Bolshevik regime that set Zamyatin writing. We was written between 1919 and 1921. This was years before Stalin took over, but it was already clear to Zamyatin that Communism was heading towards a monolithic control of society, rationalised by scientific positivism, in which the individual had little role. The new state fully understood that it was being got at. This can be seen in the history of the book’s suppression. We remained banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, in the last phases of glasnost, as the Soviet regime was about to tumble. Zamyatin could not find a publisher for his Russian-language original, so We was first published in a French translation in 1923 and then in an English translation in 1924. Only in 1952 was it first published in Russian, and that was by an émigré press outside the Soviet Union.
To the best of my knowledge, We now exists in three or four different English translations. The one I know is the Penguin Classics one, translated by Clarence Brown. That is probably the most accessible version too.