Friday, 17 April 2009

We - Yevgeny Zamyatin

In the future One State, citizens live in a condition of ‘mathematically infallible happiness’ - their needs are catered for, their days are regulated, everyone is productive. A space craft, the Integral, is soon to be launched and the state encourages its citizens to write paeans to One State in order to spread the creed amongst the stars. As his contribution, the chief engineer of the project, D-503, decides to keep a diary of the days leading up to the launch.

It is this diary that we read in the book, consisting of the innermost and often confused thoughts of this one-time devotee of One State as he comes into contact with ‘revolutionary’ elements and begins to question everything he once took on faith. Day by day, and through a feverish period of illness, D-503 falls prey to his emotions and begins to see (literally) through the façade of the harsh regime of One State. We learn of its lies, its methods, and of the partially successful rebellion.

The strength of the work lies in Zamyatin’s personal experience of revolutionary Russia and his battles with censorship. Using his experience as an engineer and his success as a writer, he produces one of the earliest and one of the best dystopian novels of the twentieth century.

Beautifully constructed (its strength is in its simplicity) and realistically realised (D-503 has no idea what is going on most of the time); it is also written with a strong and often poetic voice that is convincingly that of an engineer trying to understand a world beyond the material and mechanical. As always, we are in the hands of the translator. This edition (translated by Natasha Randall) is for the most part sensitively done. There are one or two places where it slips into lazy, modern idiom and it snapped me out of the reading experience, which is a shame. A phrase like ‘get my head round something’ might well have been in use in 1920, but its modern context does not sit easily with the rest of the text.

That minor quibble aside, this is a book that should be on the reading list of anyone serious about literature and writing. The use of language is superb. It is a tour de force of showing rather than telling. And the work is constructed in a way one would expect of someone who had supervised the building of ice-breakers on Tyneside – utilitarian, robust, and from that, shot through with an elegance rare in books these days.