Book Review: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. In the third of a series of articles for Northern Soul, Alfred Searls explores how 1917 – and the Soviet society which developed in its shadow – has been portrayed by writers since that momentous year of revolution.
Nicholas Rubashov is being tortured. It’s not the ripping out of fingernails and the taking of hammers to knees kind of torture, rather it’s the slower more insidious type where the victim is deprived of sleep, slapped about, humiliated and endlessly questioned. It’s ugly, convincing and hideously compelling, but perhaps even more shocking is the fact that many people will struggle to feel any sympathy for him; empathy maybe but sympathy not so much.
You see, Rubashov is no harmless intellectual, no political innocent or moral inviolate fallen virtuously into the maw of an unspeakably vile thought police. No, Rubashov’s pale hands are stained with the blood of ‘enemies of the state’ (in this case a thinly veiled allegory for the Soviet Union) and at no point does he express any true remorse for the legions of victims he’s directly or indirectly helped to destroy. To Rubashov, and to the men torturing him, they were nothing but obstacles, real or imagined, to the establishment of the new Red Eden that will flower and bloom all the brighter when watered with their blood.
But perhaps comrade reader we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Allow me to formerly introduce you to the accused, Comrade Commissar Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov; respected party theorist, one-time solider, secret agent and a hero of the revolution.
Comrade Rubashov is a real old Bolshevik, a true believer albeit one with a few peripheral doubts that all the mass murder he’s helped bring about might not have been quite so politically pious after all – what with the workers’ paradise having completely failed to put in an appearance. Not that our comrade has ever moderated his behaviour in any way to accommodate such doubts, or even expressed them to another human being.
But this is 1938 and Stalin’s Great Purge is in full swing. Past service, loyalty to the party and ideological purity won’t save an old Bolshevik like Rubashov. And so the one time intellectual of the revolution is arrested, imprisoned by the secret police and charged with a Kafkaesque list of absurd and invented crimes.
Locked in his cell Rubashov examines his memories with a bizarre honesty that consists of a fanatical and dogmatic devotion to a perverted form of logic. All his high crimes and misdemeanours are laid bare for our examination along with the mendacious excuses for his despicable behaviour which his slavish devotion to the party provides – and none of it makes for pleasant reading.
Don’t get me wrong, any sane person reading Darkness at Noon will feel empathy for a fellow creature in distress and experience a vicarious terror at his interrogation, a terror made all the more vivid by the knowledge that the author, Arthur Koestler, was the victim of political imprisonment in Franco’s Spain. As a result the sense of confinement in the book is visceral. You can touch, smell and taste the prison. It’s the feeling of cold stone beneath your bare feet and concrete beneath your fingers; it’s the smell of fear mixed with industrial disinfectant; and it’s the taste of despair and indifference.
In this his greatest work, Koestler, a former communist who came to oppose the party, examines the kind of repressive state machinery that one-party ideologies like Marxism inevitably produce. The inspiration for the novel were the great Moscow show trials that gripped the world in the spring of 1938. Stalin’s terror was at its height and victims of his ruthless paranoid desires now included old comrades such as Nikolai Bukharin whose charge sheet, in common with that of the rest of the accused in The Trail of the 21, was wholly ridiculous.
Witnesses to the Moscow Show Trials, memorably described in Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean, reported being somewhat mystified by the degree to which some of the defendants publicly connived in embracing guilt for crimes they could not possibly have committed. Of course the thugs in the NKVD could be relied upon to beat acquiescence into their victims, and if all else failed a confession could simply be forged, but producing sincerity on the witness stand was something else entirely.
In Darkness at Noon, Koestler’s analysis of why people with impeccable Bolshevik credentials should have been so willing and so convincing in their admissions of guilt is chillingly brilliant. Towards the end of the novel (spoiler alert), after Rubashov has been physically broken and signed his confession after untold days of interrogation, his interrogator Gletkin softens his tone and for the first time addresses the old Bolshevik as comrade, a appellation denied to all political prisoners and one most dear to their identity as loyal party members. Gletkin reminds Rubashov that according to how own beliefs, the party is not only infallible but also that ‘its tactics are determined by the principle that the end justifies the means – all means without exception’.
It’s not enough that Rubashov simply goes through the motions in his upcoming trial, the party wants much more than that, so Gletkin expertly turns the screw and appeals to ingrained loyalty to the party and its dogma to which even now Rubashov still clings.
‘Your task is simple. You have set it yourself…Your task, citizen Rubashov, is to avoid awakening sympathy and pity. Sympathy and pity for the opposition are a danger to the country. Comrade Rubashov, I hope that you have understood the task which the party has set you.’
Darkness at Noon is a fine novel – taut, well-constructed and original. It grips the imagination as tightly as the leather straps that hold Rubashov to his chair. In its intelligent analysis of the failed philosophy of Marxist-Leninism, it never falls into the linguistic trap that doctrine sets with its dishonest, needlessly loquacious doublespeak. Instead, in a prose style that is accessible and credible, it dissects with scalpel-like precision all the hypocrisy of the totalitarian mindset and sounds a clear and timeless warning to us all about the dangers of placing ideology before humanity.
For those interested in the cross-fertilisation of literature, Koestler’s great work was acknowledged by George Orwell as an important influence when penning his own seminal masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four, and his essay on Koestler is well worth a read.
As for Darkness at Noon, perhaps the most fitting tribute can be found in Kingsley Martin’s review of the novel. He described it as “one of the few books written in this epoch which will survive it”.
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