At the end of my review of Water for Elephants I wrote that, perhaps, I might need to take a break from reading books that are studies of evil or the brutality of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. My reason was that they are unrelenting and depressing and there reaches a point at which yet another book on the subject doesn’t add anything new to my understanding of the subject. With Darkness at Noon, a novel about the show trials of high-ranking party members in Moscow, I was pleased to be wrong.
Darkness at Noon, originally written in Hungarian and published in 1940, is the story of Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, a high-ranking member of the Soviet Communist Party and a veteran of the revolution. He has been arrested in multiple countries and never betrayed the cause, serving as a diplomat and executor of the party’s will. Now he is arrested as an oppositional thinker and placed in solitary confinement. One by one the old bolsheviks have been sacrificed to Number One (Stalin), and it is Rubashov’s time. Darkness at Noon is one of those stories where you know the end even before it starts, but the question is how does one get there.
The novel is broken into three hearings, each of which corresponds with an interaction with one of his two interrogators, his old friend Ivanov and the junior administrator Gletkin, who is described as a member of the party born without an umbilical cord to the revolution. Rubashov is given the time to think because the state wants his confession to be genuine and voluntary. Along with the two official interlocutors, the imprisoned is also able to talk with the other prisoners, including his neighbor, an unnamed Czarist officer who pines to touch women. However, other than flashbacks and brief scenes with the porter in his building, the reader stays in prison with Rubashov.
The point of view of Darkness at Noon is its greatest strength. Unlike, for instance, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which gives a panorama of a Soviet purge (including of old revolutionaries not unlike Rubashov), Darkness at Noon keeps the focus on the suffering of a single person who is reaching out for human contact. Nevertheless, Gletkin weaves his narratives, correct in their essential points, around Rubashov, making him into a different person. President Clinton used this example to describe the modern media circus during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Orwell, in his essay on Koestler, said that the author saw “totalitarianism from the inside,” as someone who knew what it was like to be the victim. On Darkness at Noon in particular, he wrote:
The implication of Koestler’s book, however, is that Rubashov in power would be no better than Gletkin: or rather, only better in that his outlook is still partly pre-revolutionary. Revolution, Koestler seems to say, is a corrupting process. Really enter into the Revolution and you must end up as either Rubashov or Gletkin.
Rubashov has been in this position and does no differently. Orwell also speculates on the reasons behind Rubashov’s confession, which Koestler posits as the logical conclusion of the events. Despite the ambiguities in the story (as Orwell notes) and the pervasive issues of someone breaking under intense interrogation, Koestler falls back on an older narrative–he builds Darkness at Noon into a religious allegory wherein Rubashov is sacrificed to take on the sins of the communist party, that the revolution may continue. He is promised that his sacrifice will be made known in time. As Orwell puts it, “justice and objective truth have long ceased to have any meaning for him”—what is left is his blind faith in the revolution. The cause has replaced religion.
Koestler presents Rubashov’s sacrifice as reasonable. He is psychologically coerced, but comes to the decision on his own for his own reasons, with just enough description of how the narratives are twisted to demonstrate what an abhorrent action this confession is. Rubashov is sacrificing himself for the good of the collective, and Darkness at Noon is a moving, sometimes funny, portrait of this individual for whom the first person singular pronoun is an anathema.
I haven’t decided what I am going to read next, but despite my protestations of exhaustion with this type of novel, the one I have my eye on most is Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, an indictment of evil in Nazi Germany.