on 16 November 2004
"Darkness at Noon" describes the last days of Rubashov, a former communist party official in an unnamed regime. While waiting for execution, he kills time tapping out coded messages through the walls to fellow inmates, gets interrogated periodically by a former colleague and reminisces about some past experiences.
Accompanying this character on his final steps towards death, the novel is a powerful and terrifying meditation on how this experience feels and what it means - to Rubashov himself, to Koestler's audience and to the world at large. Is he a traitor to the regime or a convenient scapegoat? Will the regime benefit from his death? If it does, does that make death worthwhile? Does his death mean anything at all?
Koestler's answer to this final question is a resounding and crushing 'no' but there is something awe-inspiring and ultimately uplifting about the nihilistic finale, and the journey there is thoroughly absorbing.
on 11 May 2009
Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon", his magnum opus, is more than just a book. It is not a novel, nor is it an essay; it is a memory and an experience, a warning and a vision. It takes the reader into a nightmare world that is nevertheless real, an alternative history that is more history than alternative, and if he has a sensitivity to questions of history and politics, it is sure to be imprinted on his mind forever. In summary, it's one of the most powerful political books of the 20th Century.
The theme of the book is the experience of Stalinism, in particular the Stalinist Great Purges and the show trials during the late 1930s. Arthur Koestler himself was a Party socialist for much of his life, and only left the Soviet Union in 1938. Having known many of the Old Bolsheviks personally, he saw the state of the revolution taken over by Stalin and his henchmen, and witnessed the slow (and sometimes fast) destruction of the revolutionary old guard.
It's the experiences of this infamous Great Terror of communism, seen from the eyes of a communist, that form the basic of this book. The plot is rather limited in scope: the protagonist, N.S. Rubashov (probably loosely modelled after Bukharin), is arrested for 'counterrevolutionary crimes', and spends the rest of the book in prison, being interrogated and prepared for the inevitable show trial. This of itself is not particularly clever, but that is not the core of the book.
The real core of the book is Rubashov's fundamental theoretical paradoxical position: all his life he has believed in submitting the "subjectivity" of the individual to the demands of the Party, in the knowledge that they were building a future for mankind. All his life he has believed in History working its will, in the inevitable eventual victory of the right over the wrong. Yet now this same history has taken a turn, and he and the works of his generation are destroyed by the progeny of his own revolution. His interrogators, first the cynical intellectual Ivanov and later the farmer's son-turned-cadre Gletkin, want him to sign a series of damning confessions that are palpably false, which all parties involved know. Yet if the Party demands this of him, if this indeed is the will of History, can he resist? And moreover, how is it possible to begin with that the revolution led to the terror of "No. 1", the totalitarian Party leader?
Through a series of short but thrilling scenes in interrogation and longer periods of reflection, monologue interieure, and flashbacks, the downfall of a committed revolutionary and intellectual and his generation are painted as vividly and profoundly as one could demand of literature. This book is more powerful than Orwell's "1984" and yet more understanding than any of the common anti-communist works of the last century; it is a testament, dedicated to the generation of Bukharin, Rykov, Tomsky, Rakovsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and all the other fighters for socialism at the birth of that bloodiest of centuries.
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.
on 15 September 2004
"The characters in this book are fictitious. The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real. The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscu Trials".That is part of the dedicatory that Koestler wrote for his book, "Darkness at noon".
Arthur Koestler (1905-1983) was a person that believed in the progress that Communism was supposed to bring, but that became disillusioned in the way in which that dream was being carried out in the URSS. He wrote many books that give expression to his feelings of disenchantment, but "Darkness at noon" is probably the most popular one.
Not overly long, and very easy to read, this book is the story of Rubashov, an old communist who took part in the revolution and who is very loyal to the "Cause". Strangely enough, he is accused of treason, and taken to jail, where he must face harsh interrogatories. While he is in jail, Rubashov experiences flashbacks that allow us to know more about him, and the things he did due to his devotion to the Party. He betrayed people he loved, and those he appreciated, for no other reason than obedience to the Party and fear of going to jail.
We can have an idea of Rubashov's feelings and ideas all throughout his ordeal thanks to the fact that "Darkness at noon" is written in the first person. After a while, we are Rubashov, and like him we are surprised, outraged, desperate and ultimately resigned to our luck.
In the beginning, Rubashov says that he isn't a traitor and that he hasn't done the things he is accused of. But slowly our main character starts to come to terms with the idea that the truth of the accusation isn't really important, what matters is to serve the country. And if the leader (Number one) says he is to be blamed, he must have done something....
The prisioner writes a diary, where he dwells upon the nature of men, and politics. He thinks that after the revolution he defended so passionately, an individual is defined merely as "a multitude of one million divided by one million". The individual doesn't matter because only the "Cause" matters. Regarding politics, he concludes that at the end only one thing is clear: "the end justifies the means". Is it any surprise, then, that the tone that pervades this book is so gloomy?.
On the whole, I highly recommend "Darkness at noon" to all of you, for two reasons. To start with, it is a literary masterpiece, beautifully written and accessible to the average reader. Secondly, and more important, it also shows us once again that every attempt to forget that the end doesn't justifies the means ends in a nightmare.
on 12 August 2007
Written in 1940, this novel reflects the kind of pessimism which followed the post-revolutionary Soviet period and with which we're now familiar. Koestler, himself only recently released from one of Franco's jails where he was imprisoned under sentence of death, builds his story around Rubashov whom we join at the point of his arrest on the sinister-sounding charge of "political divergences".
As one of the few remaining fathers of the revolution Rubashov knows better than most what lies in store for him at the hands of the new generation of brutal leaders. His downfall was as inevitable as the falling away of faith in the system which preceded it. There was a time when his belief in the power of the revolutionaries to alter irrevocably the course of history was unshakeable so much so that he himself has been the perpetrator of serious crimes, the memory of which now haunts him in his cell.
Because of that he makes an unlikely hero, but nonetheless the reader cannot fail to respect and appreciate his stoicism and to share his ironic realisation that his inquisitors are persecuting him using the very same theories and dogma with which he once suppressed opposition.
It's not difficult to see the influence which this short novel had on Orwell, most obviously in "Animal Farm" and "1984", both published later in the same decade.
The horror of Rubashov's confinement is neither sentimentalised nor over-dramatised leaving "Darkness at Noon" as accessible and relevant as it is important in the development of twentieth century fiction.
on 9 April 1999
I first read Koestler's Darkness at Noon in high school, close to 30 years ago. Although I cannot recall my earlier reaction to the book, I am certain that I was not prepared, as a 17-year old, to appreciate either the literary beeauty or socio-political importance of Koestler's masterpiece.
I came back to this book for two reasons. I had just finished reading Volkogonov's "Stalin" and "Trotsky" and Solzhenitzyn's Red Wheel (Volume I). Darknesss at Noon seemed to be the next appropriate book to pick up off the shelf.
I had also been reading about the remarks President Clinton made (alluded to by other reviewers) to Sid Blumenthal indicating that he felt "like the prisoner in Darkness at Noon."
It is, perhaps, either a sad testament to human nature, or an indicia of the power of great literature, that the story of the fate of one (fictional) man, Rubashov, can feel more compelling than the narrative description (in "Stalin" and "Trotsky") of the fate of millions.
Further, whereas Volkogonov's works go a long way towards explaining what happened and how it happened, Rubashov's self-crticial analysis, and his dialogues with Ivanov and then Gletkin go a long way towards explaining why the purges happened. It helps explain the mindset of those many, like Rubashov, who confessed their non-existent sins before their ineveitable demise. It also goes a long way to explaing why so many millions of people actively participated in the denunciations that accompanied the purges and show trials.
Clinton's comparison to Rubashov is rich with unintended irony. Perhaps Clinton, like me, had not read the book since high school, and felt that Rubashov was the purely innocent victim of a prosecutorial system run amok. However, Koestler makes it clear that Rubashov was not merely a vicitim of Stalin, or Stalin's henchmen, but of the system that Rubashov (a hero of the revolution) himself played an important role in creating. Rubashov spent a life filled with deceit, manipulation, and even murder, on behalf of his party and its "core values". The doctrine of the end justifying the means was a cornersone of Rubashov's philosphy and morality. Whatever "core values" existed at the beginning of his revolutionary life with the party had long since withered to nothingness by the time of his imprisonment. Consequently, if President Clinton's comparison of himself to Rubashov was based upon the idea that Rubashov was a purely innocent victim, he is just wrong. To the extent Clinton was aware that Rubashov was in no small way responsible for creating the milieu under which this despicable actvity takes place - then he is more self-aware than I had previously given him credit for.
Finally, the book is just darn well-written. Of particular beauty and impact are Rubashov's dialues with his interrogators.
Pick up this book and read it.
The book is a masterpiece - one of the few authors who manages to so plastically portray the mindset of the pre WW2 years - in this case one of the Communist party. It puts both the brutality of the regime, as well as the complicity of many of its victims into perspective, without either condoning, or demonising it.
The book has clearly been written by a master of intellect, writing, as well as someone who has, like Koestler gone through all the phases of infatuation with and then later understanding of the ideology. I have never before read such a logical description of how a completely moral and intelligent individual could justify the participation in the Stalinist (I assume the same holds for other dictatorships of the time) regime, right till the bitter end of their own downfall.
Another book which I found similarly haunting was Anthills of the Savannah (Penguin Modern Classics) by Chinua Achebe, possibly one of the best comparisons.
on 26 May 1998
You be the judge. Beautifully written as if Koestler were a pupil of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, "Darkness at Noon" is one of the most influential books I've ever read. Koestler's use of foreshadowing and symbolism is paralleled only by that of Krzystof Kieslowski's films. The author challenges the reader to constantly think and use their knowledge of post czarist Russian politics to keep up with the clues he leaves for the reader. For example, the author begins each chapter with a passage from Machiavelli, Dostoevsky, or Saint-Just hinting to what the chapter will contain. Koestler also never uses Lenin's name but refers to him as "the old man with the slanting tartar eyes", and refers to Stalin as "No. 1". This book also showcases Koestler's uncanny ability to write dialog between characters. The thought provoking conversations between Rubashov and Ivanov were marvelously written. Even more impressive was the depth given to each character. From Richard, the young German who devoted his life to the movement of the communist party in his country, to Little Loewy, a Dutch dock worker with the same task as Richard, and finally Gletkin, who would succeed Ivanov in becoming Rubashov's tormentor. I highly recommened this book to anyone who loves intelligence and intrigue in their reading. For a truly passionate and realistic view of though Russian politics, read this book.
on 14 February 2001
Koestler has managed to fit quite a bit of social commentary into this little book about a fallen Russian General. In addition to making all kinds of observation about the hypocracies of Communism under Stalin, he presents his theory of "The Relative Maturity of the Masses", which is even more applicable today than when it was written. Definitely worth a read.
on 13 October 2012
Koestler's fine book, written at a time when the world was still in disbelief about Stalin and his henchmen, presents the horror and perversion of the ideals of the Revolution in the most dignified and distinguished prose, a striking contrast that makes the tale told here more than a story. The unsustainable tensions of Revolution unravel in that fatalistic, Russian fashion that leaves even Rubashov's reminiscences of earlier times filled with inexorable dread. The dignity with which he attempts to navigate the distorted processes of party justice might be described as Kafakaesque, were it not for the reality to which they speak, of private anguish turned to public humiliation and summary punishment. Stalin's remark that one man's death is a tragedy, a million merely a statistic, finds its response here, where the individual concerned knows he is merely representative, and as such understands that he must play his part if there is to be some reckoning for deeds past and future.