Isolation (re) Read #76

(translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney)

Written in 1920 but with a troubled publishing history: banned in his native Russia, copies smuggled out to France, Czechoslovakia, Germany and England where a variety of translations were made, some better than others, the first accepted ‘correct’ translation eventually being published in English in New York in 1924. The book is known to have been read by Orwell, Huxley and Koestler and is therefore widely understood as both one of the first ‘anti-Utopia’ novels, and as an influence on works by each of these authors, in particular 1984 and Brave New World.

Zamyatin speaks through his narrator, the mathematician D-503 – there are no names, all individuals are known only by their number – the celebrated “builder of The Integral” which is one of the proudest achievements of The One State, all under the guidance of The Benefactor. The novel is framed as a series of “entries” written by D-503; entries into what is never made clear, except that D-503 feels a growing need to record events and thoughts whilst also realising the folly of doing so.

Page 1 opens with a quote from the State Gazette trumpeting the forthcoming completion of The Integral which will cement the subduing of “the entire terrestrial globe to the domination of The One State…” subjugating all to “the beneficent yoke of reason” freeing those “still in the savage state of freedom.” A dogma reconfirmed later with the statement “The only means of delivering man from crimes is to deliver him from liberty.

In The One State individuals’ lives are held in common, they live in glass domes – CCTV and other electronic surveillance having not been invented in 1920 – and are only allowed to lower the blinds for the thrice-weekly Sexual Day – which is an hour within the designated day – at which someone can make a formal request, via The Guardians, to have sex with you. There is the after-dinner Personal Hour at which the population is expected to take a constitutional walk, in regimented lines, four abreast, with state approved music playing. The state / city exists behind The Green Wall, which is basically ‘the outside world’, about which the regular population has almost no information.

The One State seems to have been an outcome from some global conflagration, described as The Two-Hundred Year War. There is no way of knowing whether the whole governable world has fallen under the command of The One State, or if it is an enclave within which the control of information is kept so tight as to convince the populous that the state controls the globe.

The Benefactor is re-elected every year at carefully controlled open elections – by “open” they mean that you vote in public, everyone sees your vote and no one dares vote against party lines. There is an interesting riff on the idea that in the past states held elections at which the outcome was uncertain and incredulity at how that could be any good for the planning for what the state needs in the future: everything is about utility for the running of the state. D-503 sees ‘beauty’ in satisfactory mathematical formulae, which is akin to ‘good’ poetry: that is poetry that is ‘perfect’ in terms of rhyme and metre and extols the virtues of The One State, The Benefactor or living without freedom.

Then, at one of the annual elections, some in the crowd dare to raise their hands when the call is made for those who say ‘nay’ to the re-election of The Benefactor. Within days edicts are sent out declaring that in order to render the people ‘perfect’ there is to be a mandatory procedure that each individual must undergo: “The Grand Operation” will remove the ability to fantasise, the state’s reasoning being that “true happiness only comes with the removal of desire.

It is a fascinating book, even if the language is a little on the staid, antiquarian side at times, absolutely bursting with the ideas we have seen honed in later ‘dystopian future’ novels.

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