It’s not often that you can grab a book free (legally so) from the Information Superhighway that is famous for having influenced Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, Ursula K. LeGuin, George Orwell, Vladimir Nabokov, and Kurt Vonnegut. But you can – the magnificent “We” by Yevgeniy Zamyatin, an early 20th century dystopian novel that seems to spell out the road to post-Soviet Russia. It’s a pretty great read.
The book differs greatly from “1984” and “Brave New World” because it addresses its topics with a rather wry sense of humor. I hope Zamyatin had a good time writing this novel and inserting his inside jokes and nodding winks to the readers in the know, because the novel very well may have led to his ruin. It certainly was the impetus for his downfall in Russian literary society and his subsequent deracination to Paris, with the gentle assistance of Maksim Gorky.
“We” takes place in a world ruled by OneState, a thousand years after that body conquered every country on the entire planet. Everyone is assigned an alphanumeric designator, rather than a name, and our narrator, D-503, matter-of-factly points out the differences between his world and what we have come to know as our own. He brings up his world’s history and its unique style of government not because he is writing for an audience in the past (us), but because he is providing his account for the future readers – his journal will accompany the spaceship Integral (which D-503 is helping to develop) to other planets, which OneState plans to conquer.
D-503’s girlfriend (for lack of a better term), O-90, has been assigned to him by OneState to serve as his lover. Sex nights are pre-assigned affairs, largely passionless events which are viewed for the most part as a citizen’s duty. D-503 shares O-90 with another OneState citizen, R-13, who is a poet. R-13 performs his verse at public executions. A charming trio, these three.
Enter the mysterious I-330. I-330 is a female who appears to work very hard at flirting with D-503. She also engages in illegal activities – smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and possibly worst of all, invading D-503’s dreams (dreams are viewed as a sign of mental inferiority, so for obvious reasons, D-503 is mum on that account). We soon learn that I-330 is actually recruiting, as she is part of a revolutionary group hoping to overthrow OneState and re-introduce passion and humanity to OneState’s citizens. She leads D-503 to a city outside the Green Wall, which surrounds OneState, and introduces him to her organization, the Mephi.
Things become hectic in the final act, with O-90’s desire to become pregnant with D-503’s baby (another illegal activity, as O-90 is deemed too short and, therefore, unfit to carry a new OneState citizen) is fulfilled. A frantic effort to remove O-90 to the Mephi is undertaken, with D-503 at odds with his conscience, which tells him that the protection of OneState is the single constant in his life that he can rely on. Does he turn his back on O-90 and I-330? Does he rat the Mephi out to OneState? I’m not going to spoil the fun by revealing that – it’s worth picking up the book yourself and giving it a go.
Zamyatin seemed to be itching for a fight by writing this book. One would suppose that he felt the brand new Soviet Union’s leaders had a fanatic edge to them, hoping that they too could overthrow the rest of the world with their vision of a Metropolis-like worker state, but without the other side of Metropolis, the elite that are authorized access to the outside world. I enjoyed this book for a lot of reasons; in spite of its age, it seemed fresh (certainly, there are some rather clumsy translations out there that will sound awkward to the 21st century reader’s ear, but at times that can be part of the book’s charm).
Since Doc’s a translator himself, he would be remiss in not mentioning the translation of this work. I read a recent translation (2011) by Grover Gardner, who does just an excellent job turning the dialogue and gritty descriptions in this book into something fresh and fun. He explains in his preface that there are some serious differences between his choices of words and those of his predecessors who translated the book before him. Of note is his decision to name the Big Brother-like government OneState, rather than what had been used up to this point – United State. He felt that this was too close to United States (in fact, he rightly pointed out that, in reading the older versions, the mind fills in the last missing “s”), something that Gardner feels is not in keeping with the spirit of Zamyatin’s original text. Mistaking the Big Brother for the United States, rather than the intended Soviet Union, would be a disservice to his memory. There may be truth to this; all I know is that the book was translated with a level of grace and elegance that the book demanded.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a filthy diaper in a rest-stop parking lot, and 10 being a diamond tiara, Doc gives this awesome read a solid A-.
Here’s a link where you can grab your own free pdf of this book today. It’s an older translation, but still an excellent read.
A beautiful thing has recently happened. A man has written a book to help preserve nature, to help save animals. What could be more pure?
The man is Ed Warner.His book, “Running with Rhinos,” is set to be published on 1 March 2016. Upon reading this delightful and engaging tome, you’ll learn that Ed is a conservationist, story-teller, smuggler, gun-runner, and philanthropist. A bit of a clown, and a hell of an author. On the road to telling us about his many years of involvement with rhino conservation, we learn a lot about the people he has grown to love, and who have embraced him into the family. Ed and his cohorts are real-life action heroes, people who honestly put their lives on the line every day to do the right thing for the gentle giants of Africa: they run real risks, from the possibility of being gored to working with an incredibly potent sedative, a single drop of which on human skin can lead to death. We learn of the trials and tribulations anyone working on this continent faces, from mind-boggling currency exchange rules (You’re an American? You have pricier regulations and tougher restrictions than the rest of the world) to feats of linguistic juggling when trying to carry on a conversation, weaving their tongues around English, French, Afrikaans, and a host of African dialects to do their work, gaining access to some of the most remote areas of the world.
Warner lays out his exploits that make us green with envy, but also happy to be reading the experiences from the comfort of a first world environment. We want to be his friend, travel with him in crowded, dusty, smelly helicopters spotting elephants from 300 meters, removing the wire snare from a baby rhino that has dug into its windpipe, recounting the day’s events with friends over roast goat and just the right amount of whiskey. But we also want no part of the discomforts and dangers often recklessly introduced by the so-called gangster governments which seem to be all the rage across the continent.
Warner is a bit of a wizard when it comes to describing the sights, sounds, and smells of the land he’s come to love. You get a feeling that you’re standing with him, watching a tired old truck make every effort to negotiate an impossible road, you get a sense of the flora, fauna, and rugged geology, and you come to appreciate the people who inhabit the land. As much as you hate to admit it, you even come to begrudgingly accept the wardens and their staffs at the various parks who admit to poaching, simply to make sure their families have food. No other book has made me want to book a flight to Africa as much as this one.
If I have anything negative to offer about the book, it is that I tended to get a little lost by trying to read it as a linear travelogue. It’s not that; Warner spells out his travels, but will be pulled away from the main path to speak about this person or that person in some depth – these sidebars are always engaging, often witty, but frequently require a trail of breadcrumbs to get us back on track of what the main story was. There’s nothing wrong with having a posse of characters who come fully loaded with so many awesome anecdotes, so while it’s a bit of a quibble on Doc’s part, I can’t fault Warner too much. It’s his book, and it’s great.
I’m hopeful this is going to be a popular book, for two reasons: Warner has stated he is donating the proceeds from it to rhino conservation efforts, including the Lowveld Rhino Trust. He offers two websites and points of contact for those who wish to send additional resources their way. I also want it to be popular because, while reading “Running with Rhinos,” I’ve grown to really admire Warner; he seems like a friend through his writing, and I’d like to invite him back into my home with a second or third book, maybe even more. Selfish, I know, but that’s Doc for you.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a sheer waste, and 10 being enough to bring tears of joy to your eyes, Doc gives this one a solid “A-”. This would make an outstanding gift for someone with a love of nature, travel, or conservation.
I’ve never read a Haruki Murakami novel I didn’t like. There seems to be a recipe Murakami uses for his work that he simply never throws away. Opening one of his books allows the ingredients to spill out, little by little. He will often include a nameless narrator, a cast of nameless (but far from anonymous) secondary characters, dismissive but intriguing descriptions of food preparation, missing or misshapen body parts, cats, suicide, dialogue that is quirky at best, a love of jazz and philosophy, alienation, loss, and loneliness, all wrapped up in plot lines that are oddly out of sync with reality.
As much a fan as I’ve always been, I’d never read his earliest works – the first two novels of what would come to be known as “The Rat Trilogy” (named for one of the (arguably) secondary characters). My opportunity to devour these two books, “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973” under a single cover came with the recent (August 2015) repackaging entitled “Wind/Pinball: Two Novels.”
The action in each is subdued. In fact, trying to find more than the bones of a plot would be somewhat difficult. It’s not the bones that you admire about Murakami’s stories, but the embroidered jackets and beautifully stitched trousers he uses to dress them up in. This time, there’s a hat thrown in, in the form of a preface that Murakami wrote specially for this publication, spelling out how and why he felt driven to write his first novel, and what took him further into his writing career. By itself, it’s a wonderful essay.
At first glance, the early-20s unnamed narrator in these two novels seems to be telling us about his relationships, either with women (in “Wind,” his relationships are awkward at best, deadly at worst, whereas in “Pinball” he spends much of his nocturnal hours with a pair of unnamed twins with whom he woke up one morning and who decided to not leave) or with his antisocial alcoholic friend, known as the Rat. But the novels reach far deeper than relationships; the women and friend serve nicely as the narrator’s sounding board for his philosophical banter, all wittily written and never as dry as Doc’s making it sound.
“Pinball” offers a semblance of a plot, the narrator’s desire to track down a beloved pinball machine that he whiled away the hours playing as a student. But as much as it is the primary plot, it is almost treated as a subplot to the narrator’s relationship with coworkers in his translation office and his relationship with the twins. Murakami even has a bit of fun with the absence of names for his characters – at one point, the narrator sees the identically-matching twins in nearly-matching cardigans which have the numbers 208 and 209 – he is happy to see he will finally be able to tell them apart, and refers to them as 208 and 209. When the women realize his ploy, they simply swap sweaters.
“Pinball” also offers us a better look into the Rat’s life in alternating chapters which reveal, from a third person point of view, Rat’s own failed attempts at forging a serious relationship, his seeming aloofness to a casual observer, and the true depths to which his yearning for affection strives, through dialogues with J., the Chinese bartender at the Rat’s favorite watering hole. At one point, I tried to convince myself that the Rat was actually the main character in this book, and that “Pinball” refers to him, glancing off of the bumpers of life like a pinball, being tossed back into the game by flippers controlled by an unknown force. That’s one of the problems with Murakami, though – I often try to figure out what it really means, instead of simply sitting back and bathing in the beauty of the writing. It’s really that good.
I can’t talk about a foreign language book (or pair of books) without acknowledging the translator. Professor Ted Goossen of York University, who at the time of this writing has yet to have his own Wikipedia page built, did a very nice job with this work. Always odd for me to be able to say something like that without knowing a thing about the source language, but I know a thing or two about translation, and when I can read what I believe is the author’s voice through the filter of a translator, I know I’m reading quality stuff. Doc offers a true tip of the hat to Prof. Goossen. I look forward to reading your other material, Prof.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being absolute crap, and 10 being the bee’s knees, Doc gives this nice re-issue a solid “A”.