dystopia

We

WeZamyatin finished this novel, in Russian, in 1921.  It was suppressed in Russia for a long time, only being published there in 1988.  Meanwhile, it was published in English in 1924.  I read this Penguin Classics edition with the really awesome cover.  The cover is from Painting of Futuristic Buildings and City by Anton Brzezinski.   There is another edition from Penguin Classics that’s cover is Georgii Petrusov’s Caricature of Aleksander Rodchenko, but I find that artwork icky and disturbing and I love the colors and vision of the copy I have.

We takes place in the 26th Century – which is largely why it is considered a science fiction novel, I think.  To be honest, I feel like most people place dystopian novels in science fiction because they just do not know where else to put them.  While this takes place in the future, it does not contain any truly science fiction elements.  I read this novel for two reasons: (1.) I am plodding through a stack of Russian literature; (2.) I am reading all the dystopian literature available.

This book is not for everyone – I can see how any variety of readers would become frustrated or bored by the novel. Also, if you had no fun reading Brave New World or 1984, then you will probably dislike We as well.  However, it should be noted that We was actually published prior to either of those novels.  Orwell openly admits that he was “inspired” by We, Vonnegut admits stealing some of the ideas in it, and Huxley (Brave New World) has been accused of plagiarism from many novels including We.

The narrative is written in the form of diary entries by D-503, there are 40 entries in total.  Through the character’s diary, we learn much about the form of society in the 26th Century.   D-503 lives in a place called OneState.  OneState is the totalitarian society governed by the Benefactor and his Guardians.  The entire urban society is constructed out of a type of clear glass – which allows the Guardians to police and spy on all of the citizens, even in their private apartments.  The structure of society is regulated by the Table of Hours, which details what activity each citizen should be doing at what specific time.  Naturally, throughout the book we see that citizens work for the sake of OneState because it is their duty and responsibility – they do not work for personal accomplishment or personal finance.  Work tends to be the focus around which the lives of the citizens are built.

Except for Sex Day.  We are told that after the 200-Years War, society split into factions.  OneState developed while hunger was being eradicated and after that, the Lex sexualis was promulgated.  In OneState, any citizen has the right of access to any other citizen as a sexual product.  This plays somewhat of a large role in the book because on Sex Day, for an hour the couple is allowed to drop blinds in their apartment, thus being able to hide from the authorities for the time.  I find it vaguely significant that in all of the major dystopian novels, sex plays such an important role.  One might think it would be food, education, technology, etc. But it’s usually sex.  Anyway, this control of sex in dystopian novels has the effect of removing crime and disorder from the society (no more jealousy or rape) and it also micro-manages the births and generations of new citizens.

All the citizens of OneState are given a letter-hyphen-number as their “name.”  They are not called “citizens,” but rather are referred to as Numbers.

D-503 is a mathematician and a philosopher of mathematics.  He understands numbers and formulae quickly and on a deeper level than most of his fellows.  He has been put in charge of building OneState’s latest project:  the INTEGRAL.  This machine is something like a spacecraft, it’s purpose is to spread the values and commands of OneState to all other nations/planets.  Of course, at the start of the novel, D-503 is pleased with this work and spends his day dutifully carrying out his assigned task.  D-503 encounters the revolutionary and disobedient I-303.  He falls in love with this woman.  D-503 begins to have dreams, he loses his focus on purely rational thinking and logical explanations, and he begins to be an accomplice to her deviations.

I-303 takes D-503 out from OneState.  OneState is surrounded by the Green Wall, which separates OneState from the remainder of the planet.  There, D-503 realizes that there are humans living outside of the boundaries and forces of OneState and that there are many Numbers who wish to rebel against OneState and rejoin the rest of humanity.  D-503 blames his law-breaking on the fact that he is ill.  Having dreams and ruminating on love and drinking alcohol are all symptoms of his having developed a soul.  Throughout the novel, D-503 grapples with what this means.   Late in the novel, OneState makes its citizens undergo the Operation (something like a lobotomy) which removes people’s imaginations.  By doing this, the effort is to squash any notions of revolution or hope.

There are two main questions that move throughout the novel in order to answer the ultimate problematic presented here.  The first is what it means to be We or I.  Some of this shows through in terms of the “we” between D-503 and I-303 versus the “we” between D-503 and the whole revolutionary group.  D-503 frequently latches on to the concept of “we” and wonders how his allegiances have shifted and what it is that constitutes the “we” anyway.  The second main question deals with the concept of revolution.  Some of this is historically relevant to the Russian Revolution, but the point is the same:  one must think that either there can be a last/final revolution, or there is no limit to revolutions possible.  By forming another revolution, I-303 shows D-503 that it is always possible to overcome the authority of the State.  The State tends to dupe its citizens into thinking that the revolution that brought it into existence is the last/final revolution, so that it can secure itself from any uprisings.

The overarching problematic of the novel is the comparison and contrast of the idea that happiness = freedom or the exact opposite.

I am giving this novel four stars because it is the genesis of 1984, Brave New World, etc.  I like the themes and concepts that Zamyatin plays with here and I think it is definitely a book one should read and then re-read.  However, I withhold a star because some of the writing itself is tedious.  The character D-503 tends to be a bit whiny and babbles a bit more than he should.  There are some sections where I lost track of the story and what D-503 was even trying to get across.  The novel uses plenty of the technique of not finishing sentences except for a series of ellipses.  This is okay, but after awhile, a little grating on the nerves.  Anyway, I recommend this one for the smart people, the fans of Russia, and the dystopian-lovers.

4 stars

The Trial

THe TrialYears ago I read the three “major” Kafka works:  The Castle, The Trial, and The Metamorphosis.  I really enjoyed the The Castle and I was okay with The Metamorphosis.  Well, I am recently reading a “genre” of books that The Trial sort of can be categorized within, so I finally scrounged up a used copy for $4.00 and read it again.

The Trial was originally published in 1925, after Kafka’s death.  It is considered “unfinished,” but it does come to an end of sorts.  The edition I read is the “Definitive” edition (as opposed to the “Critical”) and translated by Edwin and Willa Muir.  Anyway, my copy was published in 1984 by Schocken Books, the cover illustration is by Anthony Russo.  The cover for this edition is pretty neat, actually, so I will also say that the cover design was by Louise Fili – nicely done!

The Trial – if you don’t know – is about a bank clerk named Joseph K. who is “arrested” and spends his time coping with what this may mean.  To be quite honest, I am not really into the “existentialist scene.”  By this I mean that I really dislike Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Soren Kirkegaard.  If you have read that The Trial raises “existential questions” or something like this, I cannot speak to the veracity of it.  I suppose it does, but I find existentialism tedious and pathetic.

The noir-existential story of being “under arrest” and “having a case” all without knowing the charges or the accusers is actually an interesting concept.  Fighting the unknown minions of an “Establishment/System” is also a well-trod path in literature, which never seems to grow old.  However, Kafka is inconsistent and unable to maintain the greatness of these concepts in the novel. Frankly, he falls into boring sidetracks, navel-gazing, and pointless simpering.

I really hate the main character, so it’s difficult to work up any sympathy or concern for him.  And even if we are going to interpret the main character as a focus for mocking the mid-level banking/lawyer/official – I don’t find his troubles enough to mock him, I’m more so disgusted by him.  I did find it interesting that my response to this character was disgust – and I wondered, as I read along, if this would have been different had I read the novel in, say, the 1950s or 1960s.  I suppose the main character moves through a series of psychological responses to the fact that he “has a case.”  First it’s outrage and indignation, followed by indifference and disinterest, then the “case” begins to overwhelm him and he begins to obsess and suffer anxiety over it. I feel like in the hands of Dostoyevsky – this psychological movement could have been gripping and intense, whereas with Kafka the thing is weak and boring.

Anyway, the real reason I read the novel, as I said above, has to do with my recent interest in a certain category of novels. I was/am most interested in the sections of the novel that describe the bureaucracy and establishment.  The entirety of Chapter Seven carries the bulk of the book and includes the passages that I was most interested in. For example speaking of the Court/Systems’ officials:

They could not help feeling the disadvantages of a judiciary system which insisted on secrecy from the start.  Their remoteness kept the officials from being in touch with the populace; for the average case they were excellently equipped, such a case proceeded almost mechanically and only needed a push now and then; yet confronted with quite simple cases, or particularly difficult cases, they were often utterly at a loss, they did not have any right understanding of human relations, since they were confined day and night to the workings of their judicial system, whereas in such cases a knowledge of human nature itself was indispensable.

The ranks of officials in this judiciary system mounted endlessly, so that not even the initiated could survey the hierarchy as a whole.  And the proceedings of the Courts were generally kept secret from subordinate officials, consequently they could hardly ever quite follow in their further progress the cases on which they had worked; any particular case thus appeared in their circle of jurisdiction often without their knowing whens it came, and passed from it they knew not whither.

I think these are the most relevant passages to the whole idea that this is a dystopian novel – and that Kafka is commenting on the legal system as a whole.  Satirical and mocking, I suppose these are some of the thoughts that coincide with feelings from both Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathub, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and Orwell’s 1984.  There is this gigantic bureaucracy that employs minions who are kept occupied, many times with meaningless tasks, and who hardly have any knowledge of the huge edifice under which they toil.  And I feel there is the derived sense of how, in contemporary times, we view huge government and lawyers in general.  It also calls to mind the 1992 Egyptian film Terrorism and Kebab ( Al-irhab wal kabab), which takes place in the gigantic government building The Mogamma.

Also, there are instances in the novel that bespeak some weird sexuality of Kafka’s.  The segments that are obvious are with Leni and Fraulein Burstner – but also the really BDSM Whippers chapter. I am no Freudian, but even I can see this is odd stuff. Overall, I give the novel two stars since I appreciate certain parts, but I do find it inconsistent and tedious.

2 stars