Derek Moser: New translation of a classic dystopian novel, a refined and refreshing read | Lifestyles
Some words bear repeating. If repeated enough and over a long period of time, these words might even be worth refining, reshaping, and reusing for a new era and for a new context. In BELA SHAYEVICHthe new translation of Yevgeny Zamyatine’s classic dystopian work, WEwords have undoubtedly been refined, given new form and purpose, and in some cases simply repeated.
This latest translation of a sci-fi standard is both refreshing and brilliant. It is refreshing in that it revitalizes a work of literature written over a century ago in a foreign language – between the years 1920 and 1921 in the midst of the Russian Civil War – using contemporary English prose that is both captivating and thought. provoking. He is brilliant in that he uses said prose to bewitch postmodern readers into thinking this work was written for them. Strip Zamyatin’s name and context from that work, and remove the 100-year gap between today and the work’s original audience, and you’re left with a beautifully written novel about the perils of totalitarian authorities, the dystopian reality of a utopian vision and the consequence of dissent. Shayevich’s translation is written for “us” – the “us” of today.
That said, not even a snake could twist or contort out of Zamyatin’s contextualized grip on this work, and rightly so because “We” was written for, at, and in a very specific time and context. . While the idea of detaching this work from its proper context in order to reveal the timelessness of its themes and meanings is seductive, it is also somewhat futile. The contextual context surrounding the composition and publication history of this novel is part of what makes this work so intriguing and powerful. Written in the throes of the Russian Revolution, Zamyatin and his works were suppressed by the Soviet authorities. Although the novel was completed in 1921, it was not published until 1924, and this publication was an English translation of Zamyatin’s work. After its original completion, “We” became the first book banned by the Soviet censorship board. A Russian edition of the book was not officially published in the Soviet Union until 1988, 51 years after the author’s death. Thus, while a main plot thread of the novel deals with the chains of events caused by the actions of a dissident, the fictional events of this novel serve as a meta-narrative of Zamyatin’s real circumstances, as the consequences of his actions reflect the themes of repression and “unfreedom”. described in the novel.
Shayevich’s translation is enhanced by an introduction by Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, in which she eloquently places this novel in its historical and literary context. Add the two essays at the end of this new translation, and one is for rather enjoyable reading. The first essay is a review of Zamyatin’s original work written by George Orwell, the author of “1984”. The second essay imagines Zamyatin as its own main protagonist pushing back against the forces of Stalinism. This essay was written by renowned science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin. These three reading materials are treasures in their own right. Place a genre-defining piece of art in the middle of them, and you’re in for a treat.
The protagonist of Zamyatin’s “We” is D-503. Born into a world where individuality is a criminal offense and “unfreedom” is the ultimate goal of existence, D-503 is an exemplary cog in the autocratic machine he serves. In this state of being – known as the One State – rationality reigns supreme. While detailing the mathematical calculations involved in designing One State’s “sex day table” – a scheduled time when every member of society is allowed to have sex with an assigned member of the opposite sex – D-503 suggests that “(f) from there you can see how the mighty force of logic purifies everything it touches. Oh, if only you unknown readers could also step into the light of this sacred force, if only you could also learn to follow it to its conclusion.
Detailed through a series of journal entries, D-503 acts as the story’s narrator as he describes the completion of the INTEGRAL, a massive ship that will be used to carry the State’s message. Unique at the edge of space. As one of the builders in charge of math for this project, D-503 takes every opportunity given to explain the superiority of the One State over all other civilizations. Beginning with the One State’s decimation of all but 0.2% of the world’s population, thus ending the infamous Two Hundred Years War, and ending with his intensely personal struggle between the superiority of cognitive freedom and the pull of human emotions, D-503 paints a vivid picture of what it is to serve the One State.
Throughout its story, readers assume the impact this fictional society has on its individuals, even when said society attempts to extract individuality from its members. In the diaries of D-503, readers encounter the ever-present eyes and ears of the benefactor – the supreme ruler of the one state. This pervasive consciousness of the Benefactor is aided by the civic infrastructure of the One State. All buildings of this company, with very few exceptions, are entirely made of glass. Blinds are placed in the living quarters, but it is forbidden to use them outside the “sex hours” mentioned above. In addition, citizens are subject to enforced curfews and are only allowed to deviate from their “hours table” – a detailed schedule that all citizens must follow – if they have been given permission to do so. through a government-appointed doctor.
Early in his journal entries, D-503 is paired with O-90, his designated female counterpart who is just as happy with his place in society as he is. “O”, as he affectionately calls her, is registered as a non-pregnant woman because she is “10 centimeters shorter than the required maternal standard”. D-503 and O-90 are paired due to logic and rationality. This is a stark contrast to D-503’s relationship with a woman he is introduced to at the start of his diaries, I-330. The inconsistent emotions and lack of logical, calculated awareness that D-503 displays while in the company of I-330 produces the conflict necessary for this story to work. While “O” is a conforming member of society for most of the novel, “I” is rebellious and serves as the main instigator of dissent in the world of D-503.
As D-503 and his companions uncover secret truths about the One State and the mysterious Green Wall that marks its borders, a seed of revolt begins to grow within. The budding of this seed, coupled with engaging translation work on Shayevich’s part, provides readers with an engaging and well-developed story. However, be warned. It’s classic science fiction. Ideological and philosophical musings are interwoven in D-503’s journal entries. So if readers find Asimov’s Foundation series off-putting, this may not be the book for them. Still, if one loves classic dystopian tropes and plots, this story might be the perfect fit, as it’s one of the main ancestors of those tropes and plots, alongside Jack London’s “The Iron Heel.”
For those interested, this fantastic new translation can be found in the new fiction section of the Joplin Public Library.