Darkness at Noon is perhaps Arthur Koestler's best-known work. It tells the tale of a Russian communist named Rubashov being imprisoned and sentenced to death for his sins against the Stalin-led party.
Much of the book focuses on the Stalinist procedure of jailing someone and then forcing him to make a confession, renouncing his sins prior to leaving this world. As such, this is an intense book, informed by some back-story scenes, but focused largely on Rubashov's experiences in his cell, the interrogation room, and a cramped exercise yard where he has the opportunity to communicate with other prisoners.
Objectively speaking, Rubashov seems to have been an "enemy of the people," interested in changing the Stalinist system a bit. Yet at the same time, he was a long-serving leader of the so-called communist revolution. At one point he lets a young woman go to her death to save his own skin. He's an intriguing, insightful, wry, but cynical figure who knows that he is dealing with a monstrous political reality far too large for to him handle on his own.
In effect, Darkness at Noon is similar to Kafka's Trial, but with more political specificity and character development. Koestler, a former communist, knew whereof he wrote, and he captures chillingly the sadistic Stalinist urge to force confessions prior to executions. Here we have brutal mind-control and moral savagery. Stalin defined the word "totalitarianism" in his own special way.
One interesting paradox is the fact that Stalinism (and Leninism) grew powerful in part by denying the value of individuals. They thought and acted in accord with History, not people. Novels are more specific than ideologies; by this I mean they live and die by giving characters room to present themselves as individuals.
The very fact of Darkness at Noon was a poke in Stalin's eye.
Placed between Dostoevsky's House of the Dead and several of Solzhenitsyn's works, Darkness at Noon is probably more raw and terrifying. Rubashov is a disagreeable character bordering on despicable among a gallery of petty prison tyrants.
The question we ask today--or at least some of us do--is whether such brutality occurs in our world, or could return. In Burma, in Iran, in China, and several other places, these kinds of horrors can and do take place. Perhaps not on Stalin's scale, but in Stalin's spirit: paranoia, sadism, megalomania, grandiosity, and bestiality haven't left the planet. That's what makes Darkness at Noon relevant many decades after it was first published.
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