Glass Apartments

We (Мы), by Yevgeny Zamyatin, was completed in 1921. It was immediately banned by The Soviet Union. It was first published, in English, in New York, in 1924. It was first published in the Soviet Union in 1988. It was Yevgeny Zamyatin’s only novel. The copy I bought for the 2016 Reading Challenge was translated by Natasha Randall.

I read We a long time ago. I don’t remember when. I didn’t remember much about it, except for the glass apartments. Reading it this second time didn’t bring back a lot of memories, except for the One Vote.

We

The title page

The story takes place many years (centuries?) after The Two-Hundred-Year War – a war between “the city and the countryside”. Only 0.2 percent of the world’s population survived.

The protagonist is D-503. He lives in One State. He’s an engineer, working on a rocket named Integral. D-503 is writing a journal, which will be carried in Integral when it launches. His journal is divided into numbered Records, with keywords. (It’s like a blog, I think now.) D-503 thinks like a mathematician and writes like a poet.

We is told entirely through the journal of D-503.

One State is a society of mathematical precision. The city is laid out in a perfect grid. The Green Wall protects everyone from nature. Everyone lives in glass apartments. (With no individuality, there is no need for privacy.) Everything in One State is built of glass. D-503 loves One State.

The lives of the ciphers (citizens) of One State are controlled by The Table. (D-503 compares The Table to the ancient train schedules.) Everyone wakes up at the same time, leaves their apartment at the same time, walks to work, in perfect four-abreast precision, at the same time, eats at the same time, and goes to bed at the same time. D-503 loves The Table.

Twice a day (one hour in the morning, and one hour in the afternoon), the system breaks down for Personal Hour. Ciphers are allowed the freedom to go take a walk, write a journal, or whatever else they want to, within the law, as individuals. Someday, D-503 hopes, One State will find a way to fix this irregularity.

O-90 has been assigned to D-503 for Sex Days. She is too short to be allowed to bear children. Sex Days are the only times ciphers are given permission to lower the shades in their apartments. D-504 is in love with O-90.

Sweet O! It has always seemed to me that she looks like her name: she is about ten centimeters below the Maternal Norm, which makes her lines all rounded, and a pink O – her mouth – is open to receive my every word. Also: there are round, chubby creases around her wrists – such as you would see on the wrists of children.

D-503’s best friend is a poet named R-13. O-90 is also assigned to R-13. They are a perfect triangle, D-503 writes.

One State is ruled by The Benefactor. The Day of the One Vote is a celebration in which The Benefactor is re-elected to another term by a unanimous show of hands. D-503 loves this.

It goes without saying that this does not resemble the disordered, disorganized elections of the Ancients when – it seems funny to say this – the result of an election was not known beforehand. Building a government on totally unaccounted for happenstance, blindly – what could be more senseless? And yet still, it turns out, it took centuries to understand this.

One day, on an assigned walk with O-90, D-503 meets a mysterious woman named I-330. She seems like trouble. In the mind of D-503, I-330 is an irrational number: √-1. And yet, D-503 is attracted to I-330.

D-503’s life is about to change forever.

We was a fast read for me. For a dystopian novel, it had a lot of humor in it (for instance, the explanation of the One Vote).

It’s obvious to me that We was the inspiration for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (one of my all-time favorite novels). A man, living in a totalitarian government, keeps a journal, and is drawn to a mysterious, law-breaking woman. The two novels are vastly different, however. Winston Smith hates Insoc, wishes to be free, but knows he never could be. D-503 loves One State, finds a way to be free, and tries his best to avoid it.

I can understand why We didn’t stick with me the first time I read it. It is a novel told entirely from inside one person’s mind. D-503 is a person trying to make sense of things he couldn’t possibly understand. He’s a mathematician trying to find something rational in irrational numbers. The story got rather abstract and trippy at times. You have to be in the right frame of mind to read a book like that. I guess I wasn’t, the first time through.

I absolutely loved We. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s now on my list of all-time favorite novels.

  • A dystopian novel
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