Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (translated by Philip Boehm) walks the fine line between fiction and nonfiction. Every now and then, I come across a book that makes me wonder why an author chose to write a work of fiction rather than writing the long disquisition they clearly want to write. By the time I finished this book, I had figured it out. Koestler’s tale of the arrest, interrogations, and trial of Rubashov has had a more lasting impact than a book-length anti-Communist monologue.

According to the introduction at the beginning of this edition of Darkness at Noon, Koestler was inspired to write this novel by the Soviet show trials during the Great Terror, especially the trial of old Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin. In this novel, an Old Bolshevik named Nikolai Rubashov, is arrested for…something. His status as a Civil War hero and Communist agent overseas is clearly no protection, neither is his cleverness and ability to argue Communist philosophy with the best of them.

At first, Rubashov believes that the charges against him will be disproved. Then the doubts that have started to niggle at him over the years of seeing comrades denounced and executed grow. Is the system that he fought for most of his adult life a monstrous crime? Is what he did for the party necessary? Or even just? He argues with other prisoners and his first interrogator, an old comrade. At times, the debates touch on religion as Rubashov and his interrogator wonder what good and evil are any more. I wondered if Koestler was going to turn this book into a Christian morality tale for a few paragraphs, but Darkness at Noon—though it has religious allusions—stays firmly in the territory of personal ethics and honor. In the end, Rubashov has to decide what he is willing to do. Will he resist the party? Or will he do one last service for the party that will thank him with a bullet to the head?

This edition of Darkness at Noon is different from the ones that have been published since 1940 when Koestler published an English language version translated by his girlfriend, Daphne Hardy. The original German language version was thought lost until 2015. Philip Boehm’s translation of this recovered text is menacing and moving. Even the parts where characters monologue at each other about the warped logic and obligations of the Soviet version of Communism don’t drag. I was fascinated by the different perspectives we get: Rubashov’s complicated faith in the party, his old comrade’s weary efforts to rub along, the fanaticism of the new Bolsheviks—even the smug cynicism of a White Russian prisoner in the neighboring cell. These speeches and dialogues are damning commentary on the brutal, inhumane practices of the Soviet Communist party.

Like other books I’ve read—Anna Segher’s The Seventh Cross, for example—Darkness at Noon feels like a time capsule. First published in 1940, this novel was written in the months before the Germans invaded France and Koestler had to flee. Koestler was a former member of the Communist Party; he resigned because of the aforementioned brutality. And yet, the novel still has a powerful impact even though it was a direct commentary on what Koestler saw happening. When I read a contemporary novel that has the same kind of commentary, I wonder if they will be read in the future, once the moment has passed. If they have the same highly intelligent moral complexity as Darkness at Noon, they might just be able to find a place in the literary canon the way Koestler’s novel has.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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