Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler

Darkness at Noon (from the German: Sonnenfinsternis) is a novel by the Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, first published in 1940. His best-known work tells the tale of Rubashov, a Bolshevik 1917 revolutionary who is cast out, imprisoned and tried for treason by the Soviet government he’d helped create.

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Its pure chance that I got my hands on this book. I was searching my parent’s bookshelf for something to read and found this – it was a 1960 copy dated and signed by my late grandfather. Once I searched the title online and found out about its iconic status, I had to read it. I’m glad I did. Here is how my copy looks though 🙂

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Understanding this book requires a knowledge of Russian history since the setting is the Moscow Trials of late-1930s. Frankly, I had no idea about this so after a few pages into the novel, I had to stop, read about the Trials and then resume. I would recommend doing that since nowhere in the novel is there any mention on Russia or Russian leaders. Without knowing the backdrop, the effect is lost.

The novel has an interesting history like that of the author

Koestler wrote the novel in German while living in Paris, from where he escaped in 1940 just before the Nazi troops arrived. The text was lost. Darkness at Noon owes its publication to the decision of his lover in Paris, the sculptor Daphne Hardy, to translate it into English before she herself escaped. Koestler, having deserted from the French Foreign Legion, fled to Portugal, where he heard a bogus report that the ship on which Hardy – and his manuscript – were travelling to Britain had been sunk. He attempted suicide (with pills purloined from Walter Benjamin). [Guardian article link] 

There are 2 main threads in the story – Rubashov’s own introspection about the revolution and the ‘hearings’ where Rubashov is interrogated by officers Ivanov (his contemporary) and Gletkin (the new guard).

Rubashov’s character contemplates extensively about politics and ideologies and about questions about whether it is ethical to sacrifice a few for the greater good and whether the end justifies the means.

We seem to be faced with a pendulum movement in history, swinging from absolutism to democracy, from democracy back to absolute dictatorship. The amount of individual freedom which a people conquer and keep, depends on the degree of its political maturity

When the level of mass-consciousness catches up with the objective state of affairs, there follows inevitably the conquest of democracy, either peaceably or by force.

From the third hearing conducted by Gletkin till the end, it is a tough read since you sympathize with Rubashov and have a premonition of what is going to happen.

Overall, it is a wonderful read especially for those interested in history and politics.