Classic Thoughts: Iron fist in iron glove: Frederic Raphael on Arthur Koestler's bleak masterpiece, Darkness at Noon (1940)
Saturday 05 June 1993
Ivanov wears the velvet glove; Gletkin, his subordinate, who supplants him when he is arrested, clenches the iron fist. If he does not use physical torture on his illustrious victim, he revels primly in his readiness to do so. Rubashov is played like the bull he has been; his moment of truth is identical with the moment of falsehood, when he will confess to the treason which only credulous peasants and foreign dupes will ever believe that he committed; his true crimes are those of the regime which he is persuaded to serve to the last.
Koestler's pedantic imagination succeeded in rendering plausible the paranoid logic of Stalinism. The 'grinning judges' who routinely assisted the Revolution to live on a diet of its own children were, in the show trials, obliged to keep straight faces. They and their victims enacted a parody of justice which western intellectuals at least were persuaded to read for the real thing.
Darkness At Noon probably did more than any other book to debunk Stalinism, although Victor Serge's The Case of Comrade Tulyaev is arguably more brilliant in its depiction of raison d'etat in the service of madness. Since Koestler's novel was published in 1940, its Cassandran cry was soon muffled by Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. However, it was said that even after the war, when The Thaw abated the murderousness of post-Stalin Russia, the author of Darkness At Noon remained on a hit-list, should he ever have been foolish enough to venture within red range. The proof of his perennial quality was that he could never be among the 'call-girls' who - until the very end of the Soviet regime - regularly went to Moscow for caviare and liquid huddles with the Nomenklatura.
The collapse of communism, and its chiliastic affectations, might seem to have condemned Darkness At Noon to obsolescence. But Koestler's work retains a grandeur which is only enhanced by its unEnglish solemnity. Animal Farm may have delivered the same message more wittily, but its Gulliveresque tone illustrates the gulf between Koestler's European grimness and the winsome insularity of Orwell. Even in 1984, an element of Wellsian make-believe mitigates the savagery. Darkness at Noon was, and remains, immune to the self-
deprecating conceits of the English literary tradition. It is a journalist's roman a these raised, by bleak passion, to the point of high art.
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