Saturday, June 20, 2009


Darkness at Noon: A Novel Darkness at Noon: A Novel by Arthur Koestler

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
An excerpt from Darkness at Noon was included in an English class anthology in middle school, and I had always meant to follow up on Rubashov's travails in the face of the Communist purges of the late 1930s. A chance glimpse of this bright red cover at McNally Jackson nearly two decades later served as my madeleine, and who can resist nostalgia?

Rubashov, it turns out, was not the innocent I had imagined from my textbook excerpt, but instead, a lynchpin of the Revolution and the Communist Party, who had helped build the very system that in time would devour him (and who has himself sacrificed many an innocent on the altar of Revolution, and the redemption-by-history it promises). Yet his is no mere youthful revolutionary fervor turned sour: rather, Rubashov remains a true believer almost to the very end, and even as he faces conviction and death remains open to the possibility that "No. 1" (a thinly disguised Stalin) might even be right in liquidating the Rubashovs who represent the Revolution's founding generation.

Rubashov's uncritical acceptance of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, in particular the "objective" nature of the Marxist-Leninist view of history, makes Darkness at Noon seem more than a little dated, but the book's representation of a system where the notion that the ends justify the means has been taken to its logical (and monstrous) conclusion, where the individual is a mere speck against the backdrop of History (and the favorable verdict it promises), remains permanently relevant. As does the dramatic tension of Rubashov's various interrogation sequences. But the novel seems a bit abstract when it moves away from those sequences, as if Koestler were working out an intellectual puzzle rather than recounting the the fate of Rubashov (and in him, that of an age). Indeed, this reader found himself wondering whether the book might not have worked better as a play consisting only of the interrogation scenes: their distilled terror and intensity (by virtue of their representation of a looming inevitability that is simply a function of the absolute pitilessness of the system, and of the juxtaposition of the frail individual with that system) is ideally suited to the theatrical space.

View all my reviews.


Conrad Barwa said...

rubashov remains a true beleiver but I think he realises the revolution has taken a wrong turn somewhere, but his critique would have been a Leninist or Trotskyist one not one that saw the problem as one of the whole Bolshevik approach to political power.

I don't think it is dated really in the attitudes towards MLism; this was how the revolutionary elite thought at the time and how many ML people think even today.

Loved this book; Q are you on facebook btw?

Qalandar said...

I guess what I meant by "dated" was that, while ML folks might well think the same way, "their moment" has passed so utterly in most of the world that to encounter this mindset is a bit like encountering someone who believes the world was created in six days: undoubtedly many believe in the latter notion too, but it is not a view that represents the pulse of the times... [i.e. I didn't mean to suggest that Koestler should have "represented" ML believers differently in order to be more accurate etc.]

Re: facebook: I am: email me at

Conrad Barwa said...

True but this is swings and roundabouts; should we see a major collapse in the world economy that leads to massive longterm unemployment as in the 1930s, there will be some variant of MLism reemerging. Koestler's book is good because it captures the psychology of such groups and movements well. Wasn't it Bukharin, who when Stalin's thugs were knocking at the door to take him away during the purges, begged his wife to make sure that his unborn child was brought p as a good Bolshevik!