When we think of great political novels, our thoughts tend to make a beeline for George Orwell. For good reason, too, considering that his works Animal Farm and 1984 remain standard reads for anyone who wants to learn about totalitarianism and still have an enjoyable read.
Lost in the shuffle is a novel published less than a decade before Orwell’s masterpieces: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (1940). If you’re a literary enthusiast, there’s a chance this novel might already be on your radar. But if you’re not, this novel stands out as one of the most disturbing political reads you can get your hands on—fiction of nonfiction—as Koestler dives into the dark, murderous era of the Soviet purges overseen by dictator Joseph Stalin in the late 1930s.
Koestler manages to convey a powerful story in the two hundred or so pages this novel spans. A former Bolshevik named Rubashov lies in prison and undergoes three intense hearings with the Soviet secret police. The hearings reveal the complex—I hesitate to use “complicate” here for fear it will drive away potential readers of this novel—world of Communism in 1930s Europe, as Marxism and fascism explode in popularity. Rubashov also communicates, through a tap code, with other prisoners held by the secret police. Hanging above all of this is the looming presence of “No. 1,” a euphemism Koestler uses in place of Stalin’s name.
In a way, I find this novel to be almost more about Stalin and the fear he created in his reign than about Rubashov or his fellow prisoners. Before reading Darkness at Noon, I knew a superficial amount about the Soviet purges of the 1930s, but it was hard for me to wrap my head around the paranoia and betrayal that terrorized Soviet society in that time. So even if you’re familiar with the history behind Koestler’s novel, you’ll still be a changed person after reading it because Darkness at Noon drips with a queasy political fear.
With any novel rooted deeply in history, of course, there’s always a question of relatability or relevancy with current readers. Today’s politics and political doctrines are eighty years removed from those in Darkness at Noon, so I’m not going to pretend that Koestler’s novel is a direct metaphor for what we experience now.
That said, Koestler’s work still stands as the biggest red flag against authoritarianism I’ve read, and I’ve read both of Orwell’s acclaimed works bashing the Stalinist state. Also, there’s a timeless psychology at play in Darkness at Noon, from the menacing suspicion Rubashov must deal with to the miles-apart personalities of his two interrogators, not to mention the underlying guilt lingering in his mind from those he’s betrayed.
There’s a religious connection, to, in the title. Darkness at Noon refers to several Gospel accounts where the sky darkens during Christ’s crucifixion. It’s an interesting reference because Stalinist policy was vehemently anti-religious. Like everything else in Koestler’s work, the title tie-in appeared a tad mysterious to me when I first read it—Darkness at Noon is so much deeper than its simple language might bely, and it demands, like so many other great novels, a reread almost as soon as you finish it.
Happy dusting off!
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