April 2004

Michael Schaub

hundred books

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Sometime in my sophomore year of college, I became -- I'm not sure there's any other way to put this -- obsessed by the Holocaust. This was seven years ago, so I can't remember exactly how this happened, though I was reading, and listening to, a lot of Leonard Cohen at the time, and my campus had become embroiled in what would become a long, bitter debate about anti-Semitism. I started reading Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski. I watched Au Revoir, Les Enfants several times. I listened to the music of Henryk Gorecki. I wrote my senior thesis on Art Spiegelman's Maus. I was generally a very, very depressing young man to be around.

It seems unnecessary to add here that I am, by nature, melancholic.

I knew then -- I must have known -- that the Holocaust Wasn't the only large-scale massacre of the twentieth century. The mass murders in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were reported in the newspapers I read every morning; I knew about the Armenian massacre and the war crimes of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Kim Il Sung. I can't remember, though, ever reading much about the Stalinist massacres, the systematic murder of 20 million Soviet citizens. I recall a picture in some history textbook of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin sitting together at the Yalta Conference. And Stalin doesn't look like a monster, just another head of state, tired, a little bored, maybe. It's more than a little embarrassing to admit that you're 26 and only now just learning the details of Stalin's purges and show trials, of the Great Terror and the terror famines -- anything more than the skeleton of the tragedy, the fact of the 20 million. I'm just old enough to have been spooked, as a child, by Cold War hysteria, though I never had to go through duck-and-cover drills under my desk at school. My parents' generation had the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis; we just had Reagan, which was scary enough. Looking back on it now, I think my picture of the U.S.S.R. was more informed by Yakov Smirnoff than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Which brings me to Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler's 1940 novel about Stalin's show trials of the 1930s. I had most recently heard of Koestler's book in a Village Voice column by the great Nat Hentoff, who wrote that the novel proved to him, at a young age, "that dishonest means irredeemably corrupt all ends, no matter how noble." Before that, there was Bill Clinton's famous (and probably apocryphal) comment that during the Lewinsky affair, he felt like Rubashov, the protagonist of Darkness at Noon, who is abducted, jailed, psychologically tortured, and forced to confess to a series of "counter-revolutionary" crimes he didn't commit. I doubt that Clinton actually made this comparison, despite Sidney Blumenthal's claims -- but if he did, he flatters himself. Rubashov is a man who has lost everything, whose life has become a perverted parody of itself in the hands of the Russian secret police. Clinton didn't have a Stalin (in the novel, Stalin is referred to simply as "No. 1"), he had Ken Starr -- still morally contemptible, but not a murderer, not a maniac.

Darkness at Noon is a near-perfect novel. It opens with Rubashov's arrest -- which takes place, of course, in the middle of the night, a trademark of not just the Cheka, but of all secret police forces in all dictatorships. There's a picture of No. 1 hanging on the wall above Rubashov's bed, and it's clear there are pictures like this above all the beds in the nation. It's a chilling image, and the reader can't help but imagine Stalin's face in the frame, staring out with the familiar bright eyes and big mustache. The rest of the novel follows Rubashov's imprisonment and interrogation, and it follows it to its logical, sadly inevitable conclusion. The last two paragraphs -- you can imagine what happens -- are among the most quoted in the literature of Soviet communism, and there's no way it could be more chilling, more coldly effective and heartbreakingly true. (One of the best works to reference the closing of Darkness at Noon is Martin Amis's brilliant history/memoir Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. I mention it here because, like Koestler's novel, absolutely no one should go without reading it; it's the first great nonfiction book of the century.)

It might not have worked if Rubashov wasn't so depressingly real. Koestler could have easily made the protagonist a saint, a paragon of virtue and blamelessness. But Rubashov isn't perfect; he's sadly venal, self-doubting and fatally naive. Of course we have the gift of hindsight now. And of course there were millions who never bought into Stalinism in the first place. The cliche about communism is that it was good in theory, but failed in practice. But Darkness at Noon questions the first part of that formulation. There's a reason that books like Koestler's tend to make some hardcore American liberals uncomfortable -- it's not that left-wing, small-d democrats somehow approve of Stalin's cruel brand of totalitarianism; it's that any anti-communist sentiment tends to remind us of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy and his purges. But there's no comparing the agony of entire villages starved, tortured and murdered with the agony (and it's still, of course, agony) of a screenwriter who's lost his career.

When it comes to political fiction, we've become willing to sacrifice good prose for good ideas. Take Orwell, whose genius was unquestionable, and whose fiction is -- well, if you're being charitable, you could say "below average." The reason that Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm are (and ought to be) taught in schools, and it has nothing to do with Orwell's narrative skills. Koestler demonstrates you needn't sacrifice prose for ideas, and that's a valuable lesson for all aspiring activist writers. (Koestler wasn't an activist in the contemporary sense; his writing was his activism, and he was forced into it by circumstance.) It's worth noting, though, that this book could use a new English translation. That's nothing against Daphne Hardy, but her translation is 60 years old, and it can be a bit stuffy and formal. A new rendering could make the book a bit more relevant to millions of British, American, and other anglophone readers.

And this is bound to come off as preachy, but I'll suspend my self-consciousness to say that this is a book that needs to be read. The Cold War is over, thanks to Kennedy and Johnson and in spite of Reagan, and there's a whole generation of young people who know nothing about Russia except that it's the country that gave the world that band where the two girls kiss each other. This is a story that everyone needs to know, one that cuts to the heart of what it means to be a prisoner without rights. And that's just as relevant in Moscow as it is in Belgrade, as it is in Belfast, as it is in, God help us, Guantanamo Bay.