Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

As Stalin’s purges neared their apogee, show trials in Moscow featured heroes of the Russian Revolution confessing to the most astonishing things: that they had conspired with foreign powers, that they had plotted to kill Stalin; that they had knowingly and willfully wrecked whole sectors of the economy; and more. How could these men — leaders of the Revolution and the Civil War — say such things? Could they possibly be true? Did anyone believe them? Did they themselves believe what they were saying?

In Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler drew on his own experiences, both as an active Communist in the 1930s and as a prisoner under sentence of death in Franco’s Spain, to show in chilling detail how such things could come to pass. His protagonist, Rubashov is an Old Bolshevik, who was once high up in the power structure of Soviet Russia. He had been close to Lenin (referred to in the book as “the old man”) but then gotten crossways with Stalin (“No. 1”). Rubashov had thought to sit things out with a foreign assignment, but eventually the police came for him, too.

The novel follows Rubashov’s imprisonment, interspersed with his recollections of his work for the Communist Party. He is ruthless in his self-examination, recalling how he betrayed people who had trusted him personally, who had dedicated their lives to improving the conditions of working people through a Party they thought would do that. What became of it?

“Yes,” said Rubashov. “So consequent that in the interests of a just distribution of land we deliberately let die of starvation about five million farmers and their families in one year. So consequent were we in the liberation of human beings from the shackles of industrial exploitation that we sent about ten million people to do forced labor in the Arctic regions and the jungles of the East, under conditions similar to those of antique galley slaves. So consequent that, to settle a difference of opinion, we know only one argument: death, whether it is a matter of submarines, manure, or the Party line to be followed in Indo-China. … Acting consequentially in the interests of the coming generations, we have laid such terrible privations on the present one that its average length of life is shortened by a quarter. In order to defend the existence of the country, we have had to take exceptional measures and make transition-stage laws, which are in every point contrary to the aims of the Revolution. The people’s standard of life is lower than it was before the Revolution; the labor conditions are harder, the discipline is more inhuman, the piece-work drudgery worse than in colonial countries with native coolies; we have lowered the age limit for capital punishment down to twelve years; our sexual laws are more narrow-minded than those of England, our leader-worship more Byzantine than that of the reactionary dictatorships. Our Press and our schools cultivate Chauvinism, militarism, dogmatism, conformism, and ignorance. The arbitrary power of the Government is unlimited, and unexampled in history; freedom of the Press, of opinion and of movement are as thoroughly exterminated as though the proclamation of the Rights of Man had never been. We have built up the most gigantic police apparatus, with informers made a national institution, and with the most refined scientific system of physical and mental torture.”

His interrogator counters by reminding Rubashov of his own past as an enthusiastic leader of the revolution, with the assertion that their opponents would be even less scrupulous in dealing with them, and that generals always sacrifice some of their soldiers to achieve their ends.

“For a man with your past,” Ivanov went on, “this sudden revulsion against experimenting is rather naive. Every year several million people are killed quite pointlessly by epidemics and other natural catastrophes. And we should shrink from sacrificing a few hundred thousand for the most promising experiment in history? Not to mention the legions of those who die of undernourishment and tuberculosis in coal and quicksilver mines, rice-fields and cotton plantations. No one takes any notice of them; nobody asks why or what for; but if here we shoot a few thousand objectively harmful people, the humanitarians all over the world foam at the mouth. Yes, we liquidated the parasitic part of the peasantry and let it die of starvation. It was a surgical operation which had to be done once and for all; but in the good old days before the Revolution just as many died in any dry year — only senselessly and pointlessly. …”

Through two hearings, Rubashov duels with his interrogator, and with his own conscience, which has unexpectedly returned to life. Along the way, Koestler reveals bits of prison life, along with abbreviated interactions with prisoners in neighboring cells, conversations held in a tapped-out code. To one side of Rubashov is a old Czarist officer, unbending in his personal code, serving a multi-decade sentence in solitary confinement. That he has not been shot is, I presume, one way that Koestler shows there are continuities that last longer than the Party’s regime. To the other side is a Communist leader from another country, deposed and imprisoned for 20 years in that country, released in an amnesty and now imprisoned again in the homeland of the Revolution.

In the end, it is an unequal struggle. The regime holds all the cards, from Rubashov’s record and past statements, including his remaining loyalty to the cause, and ending with total control of Rubashov’s physical existence. In the third hearing, Ivanov is replaced by the seemingly inhuman Gletkin:

“Anything which touched on physical functions was humiliating to Rubashov in the presence of Gletkin, who never showed signs of fatigue, never yawned, never smoked, seemed neither to eat nor drink, and always sat behind his desk in the same correct position, in the same stiff uniform with creaking cuffs. …”

Gletkin’s remorselessness is a good stand-in for that of either the Party or of history. Both are relentless, heedless of individuals, always present, always grinding. Koestler shows what a lack of sleep will eventually do to a person; under this regime, Rubashov becomes a willing accomplice in drafting an absurd confession, not beaten but tortured nonetheless, saying what his torturer wants to hear, all for a promise of release.

The novel ends as it must.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2014/11/10/darkness-at-noon-by-arthur-koestler/


1 pings

  1. I can see why this is such a highly acclaimed book…but based on your review, I have little desire to read it. It sounds pretty bleak.

  2. Less bleak than histories of the period.

  1. […] serf or peasant. Kantor also has one of the tics of the old communist Rubashov in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon: he probes an aching tooth as if it were an ersatz conscience. Neither tooth nor conscience […]

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