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One-man rebellion

We A Novel Yevgeny Zamyatin Translated from the Russian by Natasha Randall Modern Library: 206 pp., $12.95 paper

July 16, 2006|Adam Hill | Adam Hill is a critic and poet whose work is featured in "How Much Earth: An Anthology of Fresno Poets," edited by Christopher Buckley. He teaches literature at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

"THE world is kept alive only by heretics," Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote in an essay in 1919, not long before his own work was banned and he was branded a heretic by the Soviet authorities. By the time he completed the novel "We" in 1921, he was well on his way to being deemed an enemy of the state. His works were seen as slanderous and ideologically undesirable, and eventually they were removed from libraries: Zamyatin was never again allowed to publish in the Soviet Union (although, thanks to Maxim Gorky's intervention, he was allowed by Stalin to go into exile in 1931).

Zamyatin had been a notable Bolshevik: He had been punished and persecuted as such by the czarist authorities before the revolution succeeded in 1917. But quickly he became disenchanted and then disgusted with the authoritarian tendencies that emerged under Lenin. A true revolutionary, Zamyatin could not abide by the stifling conformity and prescriptive controls placed upon artists. And so he became a sharp critic, and soon thereafter a silenced dissident.

We're fortunate to have "We" in this new translation by Natasha Randall because, though there are at least two other English translations available, the novel is still not widely known. It should be.

"We" is considered the archetypal dystopian novel, a book that directly influenced two very famous works of this kind, Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and George Orwell's "1984." Huxley denied having read it before writing "Brave New World," but not Orwell. He read it in French and reviewed it for a British newspaper only a few years before writing "1984."

"We" is set in the 26th century in the land of One State, a society enclosed in glass and ruled by the Benefactor. One State emerged after a war that lasted 200 years, and now all the citizens live under very rigid, authoritarian conditions that are meant to uphold and ensure their "mathematically infallible happiness." Stripped of their individual identities, the citizens of One State are referred to as "ciphers" and go by numbers rather than names. Every aspect of their lives, from sleep to sex, is regulated, and even their food has been reduced to a synthetic form rendered from petroleum. Freedom, even in thought, is considered deviant, and if the central authority decides against executing a cipher who has displayed an imagination, an operation is performed that will prevent any such future displays.

The novel's plot emerges from the records, or diary, of D-503, who is the story's main character and the builder of the Integral, a rocket ship designed with the purpose of interplanetary conquest. All of this might make "We" seem like a run-of-the-mill sci-fi story, but it's much more than that. As D-503 is seduced by the sexy I-330, he is drawn into a conspiracy led by rebels inside and outside One State. Eventually there is an attempted rebellion, but the most powerful rebellion is one that occurs in D-503 himself, as his true human nature is lured out of its prison of conformity and ignorance:

"I became glass. I saw into myself, inside.

"There were two of me. One me was the former, D-503, cipher D-503, but the other one.... Before, he only just managed to stick his shaggy paws out of my shell, but now he has crawled out whole, the shell is cracked open, now shattered into pieces and ... and what next?"

D-503's records become a kind of confession, and his entries -- often poetically charged -- chart the emergence of an individual who feels guilty because his thoughts and actions are illegal but also exhilarated because of how good it feels to actually feel something and to do what one wants.

In this way, Zamyatin went well beyond a simple critique of the Soviet Union of his time and demonstrated dramatically the dehumanizing effects of any government's oppression. Writing "We" in 1921, he shed a prophetic light on what would come to pass later in the century: the murderously irrational results of ruthlessly rational totalitarian regimes.

An advocate of permanent revolution, Zamyatin understood that any system, especially a political one, was inherently inclined toward stagnation and entropy -- things would inevitably begin to fall apart. Leaders will resort to crushing means of repression, but there will always be rebellions when the deepest demands of human nature have been thoroughly subjugated.

Zamyatin would see many of these concerns and fears realized in the years after he wrote "We," the years when Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler rose to power. After settling into an exile's existence in Paris with his wife, Zamyatin died in 1937, poor, disillusioned, his work mostly forgotten. And yet a new translation asks us to honor him with the attention that "We" has always deserved.

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