Darkness at Noon

Darkness At NoonI finished reading Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, which is a novel that I had somehow managed to avoid throughout all of my years of college.  Nevertheless, I am thrilled I finally got to read it – I bought it as a clean used copy for $1.  It was first published in 1940.  It is the second book in a row that I have read by an author who committed suicide.  Not that that has much relevance, but I am starting to want to read something by an author who does not end that way.  This was once Koestler’s most famous book, however I think his book The Thirteenth Tribe may have surpassed Darkness at Noon – because the former became such a controversy among scholars as well as general readers.  I have no desire to read that book.

Wikipedia has this information, which I have truncated:

In 1931 Koestler joined the Communist Party of Germany but, disillusioned by Stalinist atrocities, he resigned in 1938. In 1940 he published his novel Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work, which gained him international fame. The novel is set in 1938 during the Stalinist purges and Moscow show trials. It reflects the author’s personal disillusionment with Communism. Although the characters have Russian names, neither Russia nor the Soviet Union are named as the setting of the book. Joseph Stalin is alluded to as “No. 1”, a barely seen menacing dictator.

My overall general impression of the novel qua novel is that it is what we would get if Kafka’s Trial and Orwell’s 1984 mated.  The short novel is written in the plain, but revealing tone that seems to somehow pull the reader in – even if the topic is really not to their liking.  This does not really apply to me, since I have leanings toward historical scholarship.  But honestly, I can understand why the novel might seem quite uninteresting to most readers.  It’s not a mystery or a thriller and it’s certainly not science fiction.  Who would read this book?  People who love dystopian novels, who loved 1984, and who are fascinated with the Russian Revolution, etc.  There is something about the prisons and political inmates that lends itself to novels.  And it seems readers will love and hate the characters in such novels – particularly readers who are attune to political history.  The writing style is actually quite good – but I think the translator is as much to credit for that as the author.

The main character is Rubashov, a high-ranking Party member who is arrested and imprisoned for counter-revolutionary activity.  Of course, many times throughout the novel the reader realizes that the Party can adjust “historical fact” however it wishes (Cp. 1984).  In fact, throughout the novel, the main character keeps a diary while in his cell.  I was at first concerned that much of the novel would consist of Rubashov’s entries, but this didn’t happen. Only occasionally does Koestler utilize Rubashov’s diary – and in relevant places. One of the entries in the diary:

It is necessary  to hammer every sentence into the masses by repetition and simplification.  What is presented as right must shine like gold; what is presented as wrong must be black as pitch.

The eerie feeling of a Party/State controlled history really ought to affect readers in 2012.  However, it seems from 1900 – 1944, these sentiments were almost commonplace in the world.  And so they are with Rubashov, who is unsurprised by attempts to rewrite or revise his actions in the Party.  In fact, he has committed such revisions himself.  As Rubashov reflects on his life while in his cell and while being interrogated, he has a few trips down memory lane where he recalls instances where tables were turned and he was interrogating or ferreting out counter-revolutionaries.  The reader learns that “logic” is used in a loose sense when the Party is judging a case.  Even if history isn’t rewritten, per se, certain thoughts and actions can be reinterpreted to condemn the accused.  A major theme in the book is that Rubashov is a member of the old regime, and has spent forty years working for the Party, but his accuser is a “younger generation” Party member who reinterprets the thoughts and actions of the old regime. At no point does Rubashov think he will be released or acquitted; from the start Rubashov knows the ending.

Another part of Rubashov’s diary:

History has taught us that often lies serve her better than the truth; for man is sluggish and has to be led through the desert for forty years before each step in his development. And he has to be driven through the desert with threats and promises, by imaginary terrors and imaginary consolations, so that he should not sit down prematurely to rest and divert himself by worshipping golden calves. – pg 79, Part 2, chapter 1

In the final analysis, Rubashov’s ideas are more liberal and free than those of his accuser.  Rubashov feels himself turn toward a more open and gentle mindset as compared with his accuser’s who takes the “hard method” of torture, punishment, and simplifying reasoning for party members.  Rubashov’s entire imprisonment and “trial” is almost a study of using the “hard method” and yet letting Rubashov have the freedom to “logic out” his problems.  Some of Rubashov’s ideas are actually quite interesting and worthwhile.  For example, the concept of a scapegoat is played on – which, in the end, Rubashov is and thereby serves the Party even as he is condemned by the Party.  Also, he has a neat theory of the “maturity of the masses” and uses two very cool metaphors to explain it. The first is that of a swing – with its pendulum motion.  The second is that of a ship rising through locks, which demonstrates the relative level of the ship. This chunk of the book is pretty good stuff to read through.

Overall, I doubt everyone will love this book.  The topic is at once very relevant and yet also a bit distant from the contemporary political sphere. Nevertheless, as I have said, it makes a neat pairing with 1984 and it contains plenty of food for thought.

4 stars

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