Darkness at Noon is a tragedy that is deservedly celebrated as one of the greatest works of historical fiction. The quality of the dialogue, the elegance of language, the presentation of the characters, the succession of events and the plot all serve to fill the mind with a mixture of expectation, sadness and outrage.
Rubashov is a revolutionary hero who has been imprisoned by the party he served for most of his life. His interrogator was Ivanov, a former comrade and great friend. He and Ivanov ‘had been twins in their political development.’Through their dialogue, a totalitarian movement, masquerading as an instrument of liberation, is revealed to the reader. The book traces Rubashov’s life, and the sacrifices he made for the Party and its leader, which the writer refers to as No. 1.
With maturity Rubashov commits the ultimate sin, and begins to see life through his own eyes rather through the party’s. Then suddenly, he begins to hear the screams. These are the screams that Whitaker Chambers in his book Witness states ‘come from minds driven mad by the horror of mass starvation ordered and enforced by a policy of the State. They come from the starved skeletons, worked to death, or flogged to death (as an example to others) in the freezing sub-arctic labour comps.’
Rubashov realises for the first time that there is something greater than the politics of the Party, than reason or the logic of the mind, and that this was the soul that resides in every human being. With this awakening of his conscience, Rubashov discovers that the once perfect body of the Party was covered with sores. He begins to ask himself, ‘whenever had a good cause been worse represented?’
He was appalled at the systematic purge of old heroes. Rubashov watched the purge with great revulsion, while No. 1 regarded it as an act of high patriotism. He found the Party repugnant because it condemned him to ‘become a slaughterer in order to abolish slaughtering’ and to ‘whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped’. It is this morality that was forbidden by the Party. Because of it Rubashov was arrested, tortured and destroyed.
In prison, though isolated in his small cell, Rubashov could communicate with other prisoners by tapping in code on the wall. These prisoners were mostly old heroes of the revolution. One of them had been incarcerated for over twenty years in a foreign country for furthering the aims of the Party.Two weeks after his release from the foreign jail he took a train to the land of his dreams: the source of the revolution, and there he was again arrested. The arbitrariness of the Party’s power was frightening.
Through the tapping of the code the prisoners informed each other when a prisoner was about to be shot. One of these prisoners was Michael Bogrov a former commander in the navy that Rubashov knew well. As Bogrov, with spit foaming from his mouth and sweat dripping from his face, was being dragged to his death, he bellowed out Rubashov’s name.
This was part of the psychological torture that Rubashov had to endure. He imagined how the others that he had denounced before met their end: whether they screamed like Bogrov did before they were shot, and whether one bullet was enough or a second shot was necessary to kill them. In the end Rubashov was forced, after long periods of interrogation and torture, to confess all in court to a plot to kill No.1 and to overthrow the government. Some of his acquaintances are brought in to denounce him.
Though Rubashov is the main character he cannot be regarded as a hero. He is man stained and loaded with faults. He denounced the innocent to save his life. He preyed on the weakness of his subordinates, and even abused the defenceless. However even though despicable and sometimes detestable, he is a man with a conscience.
A tragic split is discernible in the character of Rubashov between the self and the collective: a deep division between his subservience to the cause on the one hand, and his conscience on the other. In the end he betrays neither. A split is however apparent in most of the characters in the book.
Ivanov, the chief interrogator who was also staunchly loyal to his cause, was shot by the Party for his softness towards Rubashov’s doctrine of humanity. His second in-charge, Gletkin, is the efficient embodiment of the Party. However in the end he admits to Rubashov that the revolution could only flourish by ‘inventing scapegoats for its difficulties.’
Perhaps the main source of the division was the Party’s doctrine that once gave hope to the working man, and in practice brought about more suffering than even the chains of industrial exploitation. And with this revolutionary doctrine also came the question that the Party posed to all its followers of whether man should worship man, or God. No. 1 had elevated himself into a god, but he was repelled by the idea of God. He shared with King Lear his madness and his fury. He desired nothing but praise and subservience from his subjects. But unlike Lear, who rewarded flattery with wealth, for No. 1 the wages was death.
It seems impossible to separate the author from the character of Rubashov. Arthur Koestler was once a communist but later became disillusioned with it. He was imprisoned and sentenced to death in General Franco’s Spain. But the sentence was later commuted. He also had communist friends and acquaintances that were either shot or sent to labour camps. He therefore had knowledge to convey to the reader the gruesome passions of a prisoner’s life.
Darkness at Noon is an outstanding novel. It is superb in the beginning, polished in the middle, and it is tragic in the end. The dialogue has great vitality and the book is filled with many unforgettable images. The writer’s immense wisdom is stamped on every sentence and chapter.
The story holds an unflattering mirror, and is a fierce polemic against dictatorship. Its esteem as a novel and that of its author will no doubt be undimmed by the passage of time.