REVIEW OF DARKNESS AT NOON…by Arthur Koestler

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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 Ivanovhad 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.

 

REVIEW OF AMISTAD:A NOVEL …by David Pesci.

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This great book is an essential read for the understanding of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The story begins with Singbe, a Mende slave, waking up to the frozen touch of a child’s corpse. From the very first words in the book, the reader’s nightmare begins as Singbe’s ordeal and the story of slavery is narrated with such chilling clarity and skill.

The Amistad (which means friendship), a Spanish slave-ship, makes its way across the Atlantic destined for the coast of Cuba with its human cargo. The snatching of slaves from Africa, though outlawed by the British and the Americans in 1809, continued for many years since the Spanish and Portuguese governments were not bound by these laws.

Ferrying Singbe and his group must have been a routine voyage for Captain Ramon Ferrer and his men. After all he and his crew had been running slaves for more than twenty years. But against wretched odds, Singbe and his men, took over the control of the Amistad. The cook and captain were killed in the skirmish. But the slaves had no intention of slaughtering the entire crew in retribution. They just wanted to go home.

Since they knew nothing about seamanship they had to rely on one of the sailors, Montez, to steer the ship back to Africa. But through guile, Montez manouvres the wheels the other way and the ship ended up along the coast of America, setting off a political and legal tempest of Shakespearean proportions. The book therefore is mainly about the tribulations of the captured slaves as the American justice system decided on their fate.

Interestingly it is only the Africans who had to face the courts to establish their innocence, and not their Spanish captors. It is the Africans who were placed in prison though their guilt had not been established. They had to secure their own counsel while the US Secretary of State instructed the Federal District Attorney of New York to extend the Spaniards, Ruiz and Montez, every courtesy and measure of legal assistance’. Thus even though, to America’s credit, the battle was to be fought in the courts, the Africans were ‘going against entrenched sentiment regarding the black race and a system which has legally condoned slavery for more than two hundred years.’

The legal arguments on both sides were fierce, intricate and beguiling. Were the Africans property of the Spanish merchants Ruiz and Montez? If this was the case they would have to be returned to the control of the Spanish authorities and for trial under the Spanish courts. Or were they free men stolen from the coast of Africa? If this was the case then the American government, according to its own laws, would have to ensure their safe return back to Africa.

Did they commit murder when they wrested control of the ship, or were their actions to be considered self-defence and a justifiable attempt to free themselves from illegal bondage? Judge Judson found in the favour of the Africans to the detriment of his aspirations to be a Supreme Court justice. The case was appealed by the American government and taken to the Supreme Court where the findings of Judge Judson were upheld.

The author introduces us to some of the historic figures of the time. The president of the United States Van Buuren takes a personal interest in the case. The court documents show how he tried to use his office to manipulate the case, and co-operated with the Spanish authorities while showing scant regard for due process.

 

He seemed to be a man who valued the results of the next election above principle. He didn’t realise the significance of the plight of the Africans to his presidency. Like the mariner in the Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, he could see but he didn’t understand what he saw. The Amistad Africans were the albatross to his leadership that he gratuitously shot.

There were the Tappan brothers, Lewis and Arthur, who risked life and limb fighting not only for the cause of the Africans but were also vociferous abolitionists. Judge Judson was a principled man with an outstanding legal mind. He also had aspirations for higher office. He nevertheless upheld the law and freed Singbe and his men despite warnings that such a decision would imperil his career.

Then there was also John Quincy Adams, a former United States President, described by the author ‘as a man of high intelligence’ with a ‘reputation as a gripping orator’. John Adams lends his formidable intellect and eloquence to the Amistad Africans’ cause, and secures freedom and passage for all of them back to Africa. Far from being a trial of Singbe and his men, it was the American nation that was on the dock. Singbe was not the only hero to emerge from this voyage of darkness. His legal team had to overcome impossible odds. They were assisted by the American constitution which was an almost impassable moat against injustice.

There is no delicacy in the manner in which the author tells his story, and the coarseness of slavery is skilfully depicted in the book with words like manacle, chains, musket, thump, lifeless, hunt, blood, knife, lash, cargo, contraband, tribesmen, light-skinned, black-skinned, and of course death.

Amistad is a wonderfully told and well researched book. The movie by Steven Spielberg with Anthony Hopkins, Morgan Freeman, and Djimon Hounsou does justice to this story of a slave who shamed some of the most powerful players in the slave trade. This grotesque and heroic saga of slavery is likely to linger in the reader’s mind though, long after reading the book.

REVIEW OF THE TEMPEST…BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.

My fear of reading Shakespeare stems from the mistaken belief that his books are mainly meant for scholars of literature, and contained very little for the ordinary reader. But when I read The Tempest, for the first since school, I realised Shakespeare’s generosity and selflessness.

While the scholar will easily savour most of the hidden treasures of the story, Shakespeare’s books were penned for everyone, including the casual reader. Even though initially I was reading The Tempest to pass time, I surprisingly found the story speaking to my life and experience.

The main protagonist in the story is Prospero. He was the rightful Duke of Milan until his ‘perfidious’ brother Antonio, working together with his confederate and the sworn enemy of Prospero, the king of Naples Alonso, overthrew him.

Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, were kidnapped and left die on a ‘rotten carcass’ of a boat that was infested with rats, and was without a mast nor sail at sea. They however survived because Gonzalo, his old and loyal councillor, had left them supplies of fresh food and water.

He also left books that Prospero’s prized above his dukedom, which were also the source of his magical powers. Prospero and his daughter finally land on an island where they spend twelve years.

The story kicks off with a fiery storm that strikes a ship carrying Antonio (Prospero’s brother), Alonso (the king of Naples), his brother Sebastian, his son Ferdinand, Gonzalo and others, on their way from the wedding of the king’s daughter Claribel.

It is a moment of impending defeat for all the conspirators against Prospero as their ship is ripped apart and lashed by heavy seas. The tempest was magically incited by Prospero with the assistant of his spirit, Ariel. The latter ensured that everyone landed safely on the island.

Ferdinand (the king’s son) is isolated from the others, and is found by Prospero who develops a fatherly liking towards him and also introduces him to his daughter. The two young people in no time fall in love with one another. Prospero once again uses his magical spirit, Ariel, to bring the rest of the party from the shipwreck to him. He then reveals himself to the king, and appeals to him not to fear.

He also invites the king, his sworn enemy, to spend the night in his cell, and goes on to tell him about the story of his twelve years in exile. With the ‘deceivers pardoned’, Prospero is in the end restored to his realm, and his daughter, Miranda, is betrothed to the king’s son.

After reading the book I felt that there were aspects of it that, no doubt due to the genius of the writer, I didn’t comprehend. The book is referred to as a comedy. But it was certainly no comedy to Prospero and his daughter who were uprooted from their principality into enforced exile for twelve years.

A strong comparison exists between this tale and events in several modern nations where coups and imprisonment of opponents are commonplace. The image of the conspirators caught up in a storm magically caused by their prisoner has strong similarities of regimes which are blighted by the disorder until power has been handed back to the legitimate rulers.

It is only the latter’s authority that can quell the tempest. The book labours intensely to inform us that legitimacy has power that brute force cannot suppress or overcome, and that all other forms of power are comical. Perhaps that is where comedy in the story resides.

What also unsettles the spirit is the willingness and swiftness with which Prospero pardons his enemies. (Or was this the writer’s irony: the machinations of a duke who despite his emollient tones was wickedly plotting and procrastinating his revenge?)

It is conceivable that The Tempest may have been the seed for Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. Dorfman’s country is also violently struck by a political tempest. In the end, as in The Tempest there is also a confrontation between the victim and the tormenters, and justice only prevailed when forgiveness was its companion.

Prospero’s anger at his incarceration can only be imagined, and seen only dimly through his daughter’s words to Ferdinand:My father is of a better nature, sir, than he appears by speech.’ Perhaps there was a darkness of the soul, a gloominess of temper that his daughter felt she had to explain away.

We see this anger in Paulina at the end of the Death and the Maiden.

‘And why does it always have to be people like me who have to sacrifice why are we always the ones who have to make concessions when something has to be conceded, why always me who has to bite her tongue, why?’

Another moment of ethereal beauty is when Ariel, the slave, surprisingly insists, though well looked-after, to be set free. I have no knowledge of what Shakespeare’s religious beliefs were, and have no wish to ascribe any to him. But he seems to be telling the reader that freedom is a divine need of the soul and that nothing else can ever suffice in its place.

Due to the limitations of my understanding of Shakespeare’s work, I couldn’t help feeling that the true message of this story revealed itself to me only narrowly. Perhaps that is due to the distant era in which he lived with its attendant enigmas, the genius of the writer and the power his imaginative resources continue to have over his readers.

Perhaps just as the storm and the island were an illusion to the conspirators in the play, also the socio-political and other subtle themes of the play are just another malignant enchantment cast by the inscrutable Ariel, and that the real joke and comedy is on me.

This is however what I found beautiful about the story and the writing of Shakespeare is that he invites us, and almost mockingly implores us, to invent the meaning for ourselves.

Throughout the story, language surges with power and grace, and is underscored by a riveting plot. With this powerful story our comprehension and consciousness are enlarged and tested.

 

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN…by Ariel Dorfman

Almost two decades since it was published Death and the Maiden remains fresh and topical. The story starts with Paulina Calas seated on the terrace. She is married to a human rights lawyer, Gerardo Escobar, who has been appointed to the country’s commission to investigate human rights abuses of the previous regime in a country that is not stated.

Paulina then imprisons the house guest of her husband, the seemingly benign and even amiable Dr. Roberto Miranda because she thinks he tortured and raped her when she was a political prisoner. The book mostly consists of an on-going conversation among the trio.

Paulina’s nightmare started on April 6th, 1975. Three men got out of a car and one stuck a gun to her heard and said: “One word and we’ll blow you away Miss.” She was then taken to prison, tortured and repeatedly raped. One of her torturers was a medical doctor. Though she could not see him because she was blindfolded, she never forgot his voice. When she hears Dr. Miranda speaking in her house, she is certain that he was her gaoler.

It seems the doctor was at first hired by the torturers to alleviate the suffering of the prisoners. But with time the brutality he witnessed transformed him into a monster. He became less interested in the welfare of his patients, and their pain became a drug that excited him.

He became more concerned with how much a tortured human being can endure before he dies. He was keen to know how torture, including the use of electric current, affects a woman’s sexuality.By the time Paulina Salas was arrested it was already too late, and the doctor’s virtue had been supplanted by sadism. He had become the embodiment of evil and was a willing participant in the mass rapes of female prisoners.

Death and The Maiden is an obvious reference to several regimes in South America. Dorfman’s native Chile was ruled by General Pinochet for almost two decades until he stepped down in 1991. His rule was a monument to brutal intolerance and persecution of dissidents. However the unmistakable parallels to regimes in our own continent also cannot be missed.

It seems impossible to detach the author from the character of Gerardo, the humane human rights lawyer. The character’s role seems to have a submerged affinity to the author’s message. The author also forces us to ask ourselves what caused Dr. Miranda to become a monster. He is an educated and even a refined man with a deep love of music. However when anarchy ensued, his coarser instincts and the evil side of his nature asserted themselves.

Perhaps Ariel Dorfman is an advocate of the rule of law applying even to the best among us. Since when no restrictions exist and everything is allowed, even the most virtuous are capable of total degradation.The book also skilfully shows the human forces that are unleashed when the victims finally face their tormenters. Dorfman is a natural reconciler and the last paragraph in the story is a demonstration of that.

‘And why does it always have to be people like me who have to sacrifice why are we always the ones who have to make concessions when something has to be conceded, why always me who has to bite her tongue, why?’

In Paulina, her anger notwithstanding, there seems to be a grudging acceptance of the need for forgiveness. It is both a human and a pragmatic need.

‘What do we lose by killing one of them? What do we lose? What do we lose?’

With these last words Paulina is finally freed from her tomb of anger, and seems to be actually asking herself: What do we gain by killing one of them? What do we gain? What do we gain? With this, the largeness of her soul and the profundity of her mind are revealed. It is as if she realises that sometimes the battle between good and evil can end in a truce.

Paulina is the central character in the story. It is her portrait that shines, and the other characters are only marginal. She is aware of the importance of her decisions. It is her ordeal, her rage, and it is her ultimate response that frees the others to get on with their lives.

Death and the Maiden, though sad, is a thoughtful, profoundly subtle, and marvellously entertaining read. It exposes the appalling and extremely disturbing face of a dictatorship, and raises the moral issues of justice, retribution, and forgiveness.