Review of Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

First read: 8/2001
Reviewed on: 8/9/2001
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

I chose Darkness at Noon as my next "list" book because it was the only one left on the top ten.  I may never finish my journey through the "Top 100 Novels of All Time", but at least it would be fun to read (or at least to have read) the first ten.  With the exception of seeing the title on the list, I had never heard of this book, nor its author.

I read the back of the book ("A remarkable book, a grimly fascinating interpretation of the logic of the Russian Revolution, indeed of all revolutionary dictatorships, and at the same time a tense and subtly intellectualized drama"  -Times Literary Supplement) promptly put it away, and reread Lord of the Rings.  It has been a hot summer, with a lot of work to do and much fun to be had, so the last thing I wanted to do was read historical fiction about the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.  I assumed that this book would be didactic and boring, so onto the bookshelf it went.  (And yes, I am aware that many people would level the same criticism at Tolkien's opus.  Ho ho ho.  You are so funny.)

It turns out I was half right.  Yes, it sometimes reads like a textbook.  But no, it was never boring. 

Although it won't help my case, I will admit that there was very little plot.  Here, let me spoil it for you - Rubashov gets arrested.  He sits in his cell, sometimes tapping messages to his cellmate, but mostly thinking.  He is interrogated thrice, asked to confess to crimes against the Party.  He makes a decision that I don't feel like revealing and (in the last 18 pages) we find out the consequences.  If you've read my thoughts on some other novels, you may be thinking, "So why did Mister Wheres-the-plot like this one so much?"

Perhaps it is because I am maturing.  Hey, anything is possible, right?  Or maybe it is because Arthur Koestler was able to present an intriguing account of both what happened post-revolution, and the philosophy behind it.  As Rubashov wrestles with the morality of his past actions and his possible future confession, we get to wrestle along with him.  His inquisitors, intellectual Ivanov and cruel Gletkin, are not cardboard villians.  They have points of view, and both are convinced that they are doing the right thing. 

I'm feeling bad that I'm making this all sound academic and dreary.   Again, yes it is academic.  And if I were able to convey how non-dreary Darkness was, then I would be as good a writer as Arthur Koestler, and then I would be telling you to read my books instead of his, except I probably would be too busy doing book-tours and all that to have a web-site, and (due to the butterfly effect) there would be a hurricane somewhere where there isn't now, and lets leave this subjunctive train of thought, shall we?

I was in the Acadia coffee-house/theater, waiting for the dressing room to open, and reading this book.  I was reading about the tapping code Rubashov used to communicate with the prisoner in the adjoining cell.  Suddenly, a voice said, "Hey, Doug, let's figure out a tapping code we can use to communicate!"  It was my friend Zvie, who was also waiting for said dressing room.  I was so engrossed in the book that it was jarring to hear a familiar voice, and it was strange to the point of uncomfortable that said voice referred to the world from which it had just taken me.   (It turns out Zvie had read Darkness previously.)  There I was, talking to one of the cooler people I've met, waiting to put on a tuxedo top and boxer shorts (no pants) as part of a bit of pre-show silliness, and I found myself thinking, "How many more hours before I get to read more of my book?"

The jacket blurb didn't do Koestler justice.  The best I could come up with, "This is Animal Farm for grownups", doesn't either.  Some books are hard to blurb.

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