Hazem Saghieh

When Novels Changed Public Opinion…

When the Spanish Civil War of 1936 broke out, the Hungarian communist Arthur Koestler, who had been a member of the German Communist Party since 1931, headed to where the war was being fought. His objective was spying for Moscow under the guise of a journalist, and there, he was arrested and had “an encounter with death,” as he later wrote. His relationship with his party began to be undermined by suspicion until it ruptured permanently with the signing of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact.

In France in 1940, he completed “Darkness at Noon,” his most important novel, after the trials of the “great purge” in Moscow and the false “confessions” that it had extracted left their mark on him. He was particularly affected by the execution of the Bolshevik leader, Nikolai Bukharin, whom critics believe had been the source of inspiration behind the novel’s protagonist, Rubashov.

Rubashov is also a party leader and theoretician arrested as part of the “great purge” and is forced, through several interrogations, to “confess” to having committed crimes and planned others, including the murder of No. 1, i.e., Stalin. When he was arrested, he had been sleeping and dreaming that the Nazi Gestapo had arrested him. However, it was his comrades who did so.

After he was transferred to cell 404 and deprived of food, pens and cigarettes, he began communicating with others in a code from behind the wall. He also befriended a Tsarist prisoner who had been put in cell 402 after their old political divergences had initially raised tensions and created aloofness. However, this connection he made alerted him to the human links he shared with the other prisoners, regardless of their political orientation.

Rubashov suffers from pains in his right molar throughout the novel. These pains appear to be an indication of the emotional state he is in and a reminder of a past full of abandonment and betrayals: the burdens of that past weigh heavily on him, and recollections of No. 1 come to him as he walks around in his cell ruminating about how they had sat at the same table as they prepared for the revolution when he had been a senior party official.

He also remembers Little Loewy, who had dedicated his life to the party and had suffered heavily because of his militant activities before being denounced and imprisoned by the party, leading him to hang himself.

The person interrogating Rubashov is an old comrade who had fought alongside him in the civil war. His name was Ivanov. However, he is now accusing Rubashov of being part of a conspiratorial opposition group.

Rubashov’s response to this world of prison and conspiracy is to write notes. He writes that the party used to make history but now only makes politics and that history had never known such a small number of hands seeking to control the future. He also begins to lend an ear to nature; when he is allowed to exercise one time, he asks himself: Why didn’t I enjoy the snow and clean, fresh air before? Finally, he sits for a long time facing the Pieta and reflects, as he repeatedly does during the novel.

Ivanov tries to convince his colleague Gletkin of the importance of gentler interrogation and kinder treatment. However, Gletkin, who was born around the time of the revolution and knew nothing about the world before it erupted, insists on harsh methods. He reproaches Ivanov for being a moralist, and the latter is arrested shortly afterward and then killed, while Gletkin replaces him as the interrogator, and the interrogation becomes even more absurd.

In the meantime, Rubashov continues to ruminate on recollections of the past. When he had been a partisan, he did not believe in the individual, and he spent forty years talking about “us,” arguing that “me” is a “grammatical fiction,” only to discover that each of us has an internal being and unique “me.”

He remembers his former lover, Arlova, a loyal partisan who had destroyed books from the old era and replaced them with new ones. Despite this, however, she was fired from her job and executed. Content with sacrificing her for the good of the party and his image within the party, Rubashov did not try to prevent her execution or intervene. He similarly did nothing to protect Richard, a communist youth who committed suicide.

Despite looking down at Gltekin, whom he saw as a semi-illiterate new arrival to a party founded by intellectuals, Rubashov gave in to him and his logic, as though not breaking with their shared intellectual reference provided the dogmatic and intransigent investigator with a weapon against him, a critical revisionist.

During the interrogation, a person named Hare-lip was brought in. He had supposedly met Rubashov (who does not remember Hare-lip) and planned to kill No. 1 with him, and as this is going on, Gltekin shines a strong light on his face and deprives him of sleep.

After his collapse, Rubashov does indeed “confess” to having committed counter-revolutionary crimes, and he is sentenced to death and executed with a gunshot. However, all of a sudden, everything becomes calm; he sees nothing in the distance but the sea and hears only the sound of slow waves, bringing him a feeling of eternity. It is as though he became overwhelmed by a sense of having been saved when his delusions died, even if his own death accompanied theirs.

“Darkness at Noon” could be considered an autobiography of how the totalitarian idea functions and transforms, in practice, into a massacre. It is a set of questions that touch on doubt and certainty, as well as the past and opportunities to communicate with others, and with time and nature, in a world of subjugation, mock trials, false confessions, inhumane detention conditions, and the psychology of tyranny. And Koestler, who did not focus much on the physical torture that has been around since time immemorial, focused on how the subjugated are “persuaded” to condemn themselves, renouncing it as a practice that combines the religious and the modern.

In any case, 400,000 copies of the novel were sold soon after its publication in France in 1946, and it was among the factors that weakened the powerful French Communist Party and undermined its political prospects. In Britain, the book was not read as broadly as it was in France, but it did shake cultural life, resonating especially strongly with the base of the Labor Party and leftist circles, increasing their reservations about the Soviet model.

As the novel was translated into thirty languages and its popularity grew after the Cold War, especially in the United States, the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1956) reinforced its credibility in the face of skepticism from the Communists and their friends among France’s major intellectuals.

Nonetheless, the end of the Cold War, which rendered many “literary” works that had accompanied it out of date, did not throw this novel into irrelevance. Like the works of George Orwell, it goes beyond a particular time, place and circumstance, becoming what the French call a “Roman à these.” As for Koestler, he became one of the founders of the “Conference for Cultural Freedom” in 1950, which was funded, behind the scenes, by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Could he have done otherwise?