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Yevgeny Zamyatin: We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin We. Modern Library, 240 pages, $12.95

Yevgeny Zamyatin was first imprisoned in 1906 in Czarist Russia, only to find himself again in the same hallway of the same prison eighteen years later, this time--with a twist!--at the hands of the Bolsheviks whom he'd only recently saluted in October 1917. Out of this turmoil, Zamyatin wrote We, his dystopia of "mathematically infallible happiness." Zamyatin knew that something was rotting in the state of Russia; he told the world, and he did so before both Orwell and Huxley.

In such a state and state of mind, Zamyatin penciled out the formula for the perfect man in the perfect world: "when the freedom = o, he doesn't commit a crime." Man as barcode is the workable theme: a measurable quantity, not a quality, of living.

It could be said, perhaps, that there is no "I" in We--certainly not in a digitized hero like D-503. In We's "One State" the mechanics of modern man step over the "spirit of man: Sex is rationed out with pink slips, a controlled commodity; glass houses are not so much solar houses as they are moral safeguards against mystery and imagination, a penitentiary of the spirit. Indeed, transparency-as-penitentiary maintains the rigid order of the work-a-day tyranny of the "One State."

Yet the plot of We moves like molasses in winter; its philosophy is just as thick. Moments of transcendence fall flat, as when D-503 reasons out, "I felt myself above everyone, I was myself, a separate thing, a world; I stopped being a component, as before, and I became the number one." Zamyatin's individualism lapses into perfunctory rebellion.

Romance has no voice in Zamyatin's sterilized world. "The unspeakable" becomes the leitmotif in Zamyatin's novel, as D-503's most intriguing thoughts often collapse into ellipses, a teasing suspension of drama that never quite gives up the goods. Unlike in 1984, romance is an afterthought meted out in redundant niceties: "I love you more and more and more."

Without the romance and passion that Orwell was able to weave through his dystopia, We remains flat and dumb. Though rightly praised for being the shovel that broke the ground of dystopian novels, We is not nearly the masterpiece 1984 is; it ignores the complexities of human relations, love, and suffering. In Orwell's novel, the death of love screams through the brutality of placing "perfect" ideas and abstractions above fallible men. Such horror and passion fade in the literary mind of Zamyatin, where there are no real men, no real lives, and no one to save them.
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Author:Ghods, Emily
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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