Totalitarianism isn't as scary or fascinating as it used to be. With the Cold War over, the horrors of the twentieth century receding, the selection has begun among novels that treat of it. Not all will survive; my feeling, for instance, is that Nabokov's Bend Sinister isn't a masterpiece after all. But Darkness at Noon will make it.
The novel begins slowly and somewhat conventionally; in fact, the first few chapters prompted me to the interrogations above. Rubashov has been arrested, even though he is a hero and a party cadre (in all but name, the setting is Stalinist Russia); he is in jail, and it looks as though he is about to be tortured. But Koestler's novel is a political book much more than a treatise about concentration camps or institutional violence. The real struggle takes place within the protagonist's conscience. And we are skilfully, compulsively drawn in.
Koestler's strength is that he is able to voice the Party argument cogently, even convincingly. The debate is real; this is not the trite denunciation we might expect. The ideological dilemma, increasingly hard to appreciate with distance, becomes clear again. If one criticism can be made, it is that Darkness at Noon only denounces left-wing totalitarianism as perversion, not as project. But Koestler was a member of the Communist Party; he fought in Spain and indeed was captured by the Franquists. Like Orwell, he became disabused. His credibility is immense. And what is perhaps most amazing is that this was written in 1940, when Stalinism remained hugely popular. Whether as historical refresher or simply as an absorbing book about conscience, morality, and choice, Darkness at Noon demands to be read.