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Books, Reviews

Forgotten Book: DARKNESS AT NOON, by Arthur Koestler

06.10.11 | 4 Comments

I supposed that it’s unusual to name as a forgotten book one that was listed in the top ten novels in English in the 20th century, but I have to wonder how widely Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is read today.

This novel tells the story of Rubashov, a communist since his early youth, a hero of the Russian Revolution, and later a prominent envoy (frequently undercover) to other European countries. As the book opens he’s awakened by hammering at his apartment door. Even before he answers there’s little question in his mind as to the reason: he’s being arrested.

The first section of the novel details the time spent pacing in his cell, his interactions with the other prisoners – mostly limited to tapping on code on the pipes running through the walls – and, most importantly, his reminiscinces of the things he’s done for the Communist cause.

At first his case is investigated by Ivanov, an old acquaintance, but soon he’s replaced and the implacable Gletkin begins his interrogation. Rubashov is kept awake and staring into a lamp for hours as Gletkin takes tiny nuggest of fact and builds them up through inference and supposition into plots against Number 1, the supreme ruler (neither Stalin nor Russia are ever identified by name). Though he knows it’s useless, Rubashov resists, denying Gletkin’s chains of logic.

Rubashov realizes the central mistakes of Communism: the insistence on correct thoughts, and the use of only one sanction, death. Dissent is not just opposition to the political program of the state, but mere differences of opinion. The head of the navy, Rubashov’s former friend, is executed because he advocated for large submarines with a long range, implying an aggressive foreign policy. With the country in a weakened state, the official line is for smaller, defensive submarines. But the Navy man won’t give up his ideas and is killed for them.

In an quote before the last sections of the book, Koestler makes his main point clear:

Show us not the aim without the way.
For ends and means on earth are so entangled
That changing one, you change the other too;
Each different path brings other ends in view.

Darkness At Noon is important in the way it documents the patterns of thought that led to Stalinism, written by someone who knew, as Koestler, a Hungarian, had himself been a committed Communist until the Soviets began holding show trials for his friends. And one final note: for a great book, this doesn’t ask of the reader the effort that most Great Literature requires. It’s an easy read, though you’ll be thinking about it long after you close the cover.

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