Friday, 8 May 2015

Book Review - Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, translated by Daphne Hardy

Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1947                                              (first published 1940)

What to write about this book that hasn't already been written? Along with a few other classics from the 20th century, Darkness at Noon sheds an almost unbearable ray of light into the mindset of ideological dictatorship and the brutality toward individuals that inevitably results.

Koestler himself was a member of the Communist party between the wars, and in a prefatory note states that "The characters in this work 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 Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to the author."

The story of Darkness at Noon is quite simple: we follow Rubashov from his arrest, through his interrogation and trial, until in the final pages his sentence of execution is carried out. The action obviously takes place in the USSR, although no countries or leaders are mentioned by name - Stalin is referred to as "No. 1", Hitler as the man with the small moustache, and so on.

Through Rubashov's thoughts, and the progress of his interrogation, we have laid bare for us the tragedy of the Russian Revolution, and the terror and horror it released not only in the USSR, but across Europe. Rubashov is portrayed as one of the original revolutionaries who sacrificed his life for the cause and now in prison, sure of his eventual fate, he is led to the question of whether he was on the right side of history. Up until this time he had no qualms in sending people to their deaths for the greater good of the revolution, but now wavers on the question of whether it is justified to sacrifice individuals for a grander scheme. For some time he has doubted the ability of the Party to bring the human race to a better future, especially through the methods of destroying people in the here-and-now. The minor character of an old monarchist in the cell next door, which Rubashov at first ridicules, later seems not as stupid as Rubashov wonders if his ideals and actions were in fact in any way different from that old soldier.

Rubashov has two interrogators - Ivanov and Gletkin. Ivanov is a friend of Rubashov's from the Civil War times, and feels he knows how to get Rubashov to admit to his crimes, by treating him well, and arguing the points of contention. Of course that process doesn't last, and Ivanov is himself shot for being too "cynical" about the process. Gletkin is one of the new generation, who has only known the Revolution - his methods are much more straightforward, and, it turns out, successful. He manages to get Rubashov to confess to outrageous crimes by logically stepping through the implications of his feelings: if Rubashov feels the party has failed, the logical outcome of that is that he would begin to sabotage the party (the charge) even if he had not yet started to do so. If Rubashov thought that No. 1 was destroying the Revolution, the logical outcome of that train of thought is for Rubashov to arrange to have him assassinated (the charge), even if he had yet to do so. And so on. Rubashov, who we have seen in flashbacks applying the same rigorous logic to others who have variously ended up in Nazi or Communist jails, executed or killing themselves, cannot deny the charges in the way they are put. And yet both we and he know that the whole process is absurd.

Just before his sentence is carried out, Rubashov ruminates in his cell "The Party denied the free will of the individual - and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives - and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one.....For forty years he [Rubashov] had fought against economic fatality. It was the central ill of humanity, the cancer which was eating into its entrails. It was there that one must operate; the rest of the healing process would follow. All else was dilettantism, romanticism, charlatanism. One cannot heal a person mortally ill by pious exhortations. The only solution was the surgeon's knife and his cool calculation. But where the knife had been applied, a new sore had appeared in place of the old. And again the equation did not work out......Perhaps it was not suitable for a man to think every thought to its logical conclusion."

Koestler wrote this book in the years 1938-1940, when the clash of the two great totalitarian systems was moving into its final phase. It is ironic that this clash probably enabled the Communist dictatorship to hold on for longer than it might have otherwise done - Koestler hints at this throughout the book. In so many ways Darkness at Noon presages 1984, in that we see the process where the dictatorship not only eliminates dissenters, but actually tries to change the way they think before they are eliminated.

This book is deservedly a classic, and even though the old Communist dictatorship is dead, is still required reading on the dangers of unfettered ideology.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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