Saturday, August 19, 2006

Reading. Zamyatin.

The other day a friend asked me if I had ever read Zamyatin's We. (It was during one of those random conversations that we always seem to have early in the morning before I am even fully awake). Of course I had. But I am ashamed to admit that I cannot remember anything about it, except that it was electrifying, science fiction but beyond that a searing look at both the past and the imagined future...I came home tonight and stood in the hall wondering in which of the boxes stacked all over my room was hiding my copy. It so happened that it was at the top of the first box I opened. An omen. And then a second thing happened. I was flipping through the accordian file that held some of the papers I had written in college, and the first one I found was on We. Clearly it is time to come back to this story...

It has been more than six years since I read We (the date on my paper is 18 April, 2000) in a course on Russian literature between the revolutions. I was nineteen. I spoke Russian. The title of my paper was Love and the Homos sovieticus. (I am not sure how I came up with such a title). It is a terrible paper, unfocused and scatterbrained and written in Courier, the font of students desperate to make their papers look as long as possible, although my professor still gave me an A-. (The minus was for, I inferred, being "a little uneven and associative in its organization"). I can only hope that six years from now I will not read everything I wrote here in this present time and cringe from the pretentiousness of it all. In my paper I wrote about love the way only a nineteen-year-old could write about it, that is, idiotically, and without the faintest clue as to what it might mean. (Certainly I cannot pretend to understand love any better now, and I probably never will).

At that time I was reading a lot of Kundera along with all the Soviet writers I had been studying, and in my paper I was struggling to make a parallel between something Kundera wrote (in the foreward to his play Jacques and His Master, written shortly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviets) about a incident in which a Russian soldier had told him that they, the Russians, loved the Czechs, and the turmoil raging through the country was merely a misunderstanding (invasion, arrest, hell of a misunderstanding, I would say). The conclusion I drew, all those years ago, was that the love spoken of in the One State of Zamyatin's novel was that same kind of love which Kundera wrote about, love that tried to excuse the brutality of force wielded in the name of love. Which in my mind was no kind of love at all.

After that era passed I had forgotten all about We, about the chill that ran up my spine as I read about how mathematics replaced imagination and booklets of pink tickets replaced love, how precise straight lines replaced the curves of life. From that beginning chapter when the narrator compares his building of the Integral, a machine, with the image of life burgeoning forth in a woman's body, Zamyatin's words are like a stinging shock to the senses. It is completely of his moment in time. I wonder what he would have made of ours.

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