31 March, 2011

The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge (1949)

Ok, I confess. I have a macabre penchant for gulag fiction, and this is my favourite of the lot. While Koestler & Solzhenitsyn graphically portray interrogation and exile respectively, Serge takes a panoramic approach showing how a Stalinist purge rippled out from a random incident to ensnare old heroes and young zealots alike. And he ought to know - having spent years in a Russian prison in the 1930s. This is a masterfully constructed tale written in an immensely readable style, but it is the unique window into the remorseless machinery of a totalitarian state and its justifications that make this book essential cautionary reading.

17 March, 2011

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)

Orwell’s 1984 & Huxley’s Brave New World owe this work a (not always acknowledged) debt. Written in 1920 and banned by the Soviets before publication, We is set in the 32nd century where society, known as One State, allows its citizens no freedom in order to safeguard them from crime and secure their ‘happiness’. The story follows D-503 (people have numbers, not names), a respected mathematician, who comes to question what One State stands for. Eerily prescient of the Stalinist and Nazi horrors that were just around the corner, Zamyatin’s dystopian sci-fi trailblazer retains a freshness you might not expect from a novel now 90 years old.