Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler presents an authentic slice of Russian history in this sad tale based on his own experiences as a member of the Communist Party from 1932 to 1938, when he resigned his membership to the party during the “Moscow Trials”. In Darkness at Noon, the arrest and trial of the fictional character Rubashov allows Koestler to describe his Bolshevik acquaintances and gives voice to his disdain for the totalitarian Communist system.
There were a lot of dark days in the history of Russia, but for Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, the blackest days began in 1939 in in the middle of the night when two of Stalin’s henchmen got him out of bed with a warrant for his arrest.
Rubashov had dedicated his life to the Communist party; 40 years of loyal service. He was from the Bolshevik Old Guard, fought in the revolution and had a respected title and awards to prove it. But now Stalin was in the process of purging the communist party of all the Old Guard revolutionaries. Purging, for the elite party members, usually meant confession by torture, and then a “Moscow Trial” with the pre-determined outcome of guilt and the penalty of death.
As Rubashov awaits his trial in solitary confinement over the course of several weeks, he tries to ignore the physical discomfort and calmly analyze his situation. He knows there are only three options:
- die in silence
- rebel, which will be a hopeless struggle
- deny and suppress one’s own convictions in order to remain in the Party ranks. A tactic that had worked on a previous arrest, but this time might be different.
Rubashov reflects on the phony charges against him, the main one being that he collaborated in a plot to assassinate Stalin. Of course he didn’t plot to kill Stalin, but that will have no bearing on the outcome of the trial. Rubashov secretly regrets that “the party no longer represents the interests of the Revolution, of the masses, or of the progress of humanity.” But, Party policy dictates, “we have to punish wrong ideas as others punish crimes: with death.” So, he concludes, if “disloyal thoughts” constituted guilt, then according to Party policy, he is guilty. That is the rule. But should he die for merely having subversive thoughts?
Rubashov reflects on his past. The Stalin terror tactics had been going on since 1933. Most of the Old Guard are already gone. “nothing left of the revolution generations but a moaning, numbed, apathetic lump of sacrificial flesh.” But the Party philosophy can be summed up in two simple phrases, “the ends justifies the means”, and “it is the revolutionaries duty to preserve one’s own life.” That is what Stalin was doing now. That is what Rubashov had done himself in the past… sacrificed others, so he could preserve his own life. Rubashov says, “I was one of those. I destroyed people whom I was fond of, and gave power to others I did not like. If I was right, I have nothing to repent of; if I was wrong, I will pay.”
And then the torture begins; sleep deprivation and endless days of philosophical questioning, for hour upon hour, under a hot blinding light, incapable of outwitting the coldhearted savage interrogator, suffering from disoriented ennui, craving sleep. And as the book comes to a conclusion, one of Rubashov’s last lucid thoughts is that for forty years he had lived strictly in accordance with the vows of the Party, and he still didn’t know the answer to the one big question, “was the revolution justified?” Rubashov called his life a pretty grotesque comedy. I pity Rubashov for his wasted time on earth, but I can’t say that I pitied his demise. I will inject my own appropriate phrase taken from the Gospel of Matthew, verse 26.52 “live by the sword, die by the sword.” Darkness at Noon is a story of poetic justice.
This is an amazing story that personifies everything that was wrong with the communist system. Arthur Koestler witnessed the communist’s at work first hand, at first recognizing the beauty of the communist theory, and later waking up to the reality of it’s terror. He always had very strong political and social views. He traveled the world as a correspondent – journalist reporting on current events – serving in the army in Great Britain during WW II.
Darkness at Noon is just one sample of his writing… in fact this book is part of a trilogy – although it is not a continuing story. The 3 stories are extreme examples of “idealism gone wrong” Book 1 is The Gladiators, and Book 3 Arrival and Departure.
Rated 5 Stars March 2012
All contents © 2012 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.