I just finished reading this brilliant and under-appreciated masterpiece and have plenty of thoughts and a lot say about it. Too much, in fact, for one blog post, especially since I’m swamped with work and a tight deadline. I can’t say much more than a few paragraphs about it at the moment, so I thought I’d start with with a simple, spoiler-free review and some initial thoughts. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of posts on this book. 🙂
This statement, by Arthur Koestler, that precedes the novel, pretty much sums up everything you need to know going into Darkness at Noon.
The “so-called Moscow Trials” were a series of three show trials, held in the Soviet Union between 1936-1938, in which Stalin had several leading Bolsheviks from the Russian Revolution and top officials (anyone who could who could possibly threaten his power) arrested, tried for treason and found guilty. Most of those convicted were given the death sentence and shot. One of the most bewildering things about these trials were the seemingly voluntary and willing confessions of guilt obtained from the accused. The trials were a sham, the accused were hardened men, heroes from the revolution who had not committed the crimes they were accused of, so why did they confess (especially when confessing would almost certainly lead to their death)?
Darkness at Noon is Arthur Koestler’s 200 page attempt to answer that question and he does so with an insight and brilliance that is pretty amazing. Set during the time of the Moscow Trials, in the Soviet Union, we follow the story of Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik leader, as he is arrested, imprisoned, interrogated and tried for treason against the very government he helped bring to power and devoted his entire life to. While in prison, Rubashov deliberates on the question of whether or not to confess to crimes he has not committed and if so: why? and if not: why not?
Rubashov is a fictional person, but the people and events that the book is based on were real. Koestler, himself, was once enamored by the idea of a Communist utopia and an eager and fanatical member of the Communist Party.
“I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and corpses of the drowned.”
—Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing
Drawing on his seven years as a member of the Communist Party, Koestler gets to the heart of the ideology behind the thoughts and struggles and actions of those committed to the Revolution. He creates an extremely well-rounded and lifelike portrait of someone who has rejected his conscience, made the Party his god, and spent his life sacrificing others for the Cause on “the principle that the end justifies the means–all means, without exception”–only to find that the Cause now demands that he be sacrificed (and there are no exceptions).
Something I thought about a lot as I was reading, that has continued to baffle me since I finished, is the question of why this book is not more well known. I imagine the answer may have something to do with the fall of Communist Russia, perhaps people think that it’s no longer that relevant. This is probably a subject to expound on in another post, but I’ll just say here that I think this book is as relevant today as it was when it was written because it deals with human nature and our tendency, as humans, to justify our means to get our ends, our tendency to see others as means to an end instead of an end in themselves, our tendency to paint the world in black and white and form tribes and groups that value the collective over the individual and it clearly shows the terrible place all that leads to.
Another thing about this book, that took me by surprise, from the get-go, was the undeniable connection and similarity I kept seeing between Darkness at Noon and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I even stopped to confirm that Nineteen Eighty-Four was written after Darkness at Noon and that it wasn’t the other way around. This is definitely subject I want to explore further in another post, because there’s stuff in Darkness at Noon that I’m sure George Orwell drew on in writing Nineteen Eighty-Four (and possibly Animal Farm, as well) and I think he was influenced by Koestler in a significant way.
That said, comparing Darkness at Noon to Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bit like comparing two of your favourite kinds of oranges against each other. Both have their merits, but Darkness at Noon is in no ways inferior; it can easily hold it’s own and is even superior in ways.
Like I said, I think this book is completely under-appreciated, so I’m determined to do my part to make sure this book does not fall into complete obscurity. 🙂 If you’re interested in politics or philosophy or psychology or literature; if you’re a fan of George Orwell or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky, it’s highly probable that you’d like this book and I’d highly recommend it!
And if you do read it or if you’ve already read it, let me know what you think! I love to hear your thoughts about it. 😀