Though loaded with potent political reflection, the work is cumbersome and hardly contains any plot progression.
The Grammatical Fiction
The focus of the work is Rubashov, a Soviet leader who finds himself imprisoned by orders of his former colleagues who no longer trust Rubashov’s commitment to the cause. In some ways they are right because Rubashov sees what he considers a developmental flaw in the Soviet system. The flaw stands in as a thinly veiled criticism of the cult of personality around Joseph Stalin. On the other hand, the new generation that falls in line with the current political atmosphere, like Gletkin, is a fearsome bunch of brutes that tortures and carries out executions with soulless efficiency.
Over the course of several interrogations, Rubashov fights the increasingly corrupt system as long as he can, but he also becomes an apologist. He makes the claim that even if the future of Communism belongs to violent peasant thugs like Gletkin, the historical process taught by Marx and Lenin will ultimately triumph and bring an era of peace afterwards. This hope is cold comfort at best as Rubashov endures interrogation, torture, and even casual deprivation during his imprisonment.
All this time, Rubashov also ponders some of his personal failings, but he understands they have nothing to do with his incarceration. These musings force him to consider what dignity really means to him since his dignity is what he believes keeps from agreeing to the false accusations and asking for leniency.
While the work encourages deep thinking about the perils Soviet Communism it hardly makes for captivating reading. Most of the novel is spent in Rubashov’s cell while he reflects on his personal history and later the developmental trajectory of Communism in Europe. Little actually happens, and readers looking for any sort of plot will be disappointed. Even the hearings where Gletkin tortures Rubashov are tame, moving by dialogue and internal monologue more than by any event. This style would not be bad if the writing were not so dry. The political theories all sound like stump speeches or text books rather than the reflections of a man under duress.
None of the other characters are developed even to the limited extent that Rubashov is. Gletkin is an emotionless, bureaucratic henchman. Ivanov is an old soldier who does not seem to believe in what he is doing, but is caught between his duty and sympathy for Rubashov’s position. The other prisoners, too, are sketched broadly and are by turns a comfort and an annoyance to Rubashov.
Though the political commentary is of some value it hardly is enough to make a novel. Rubashov seems incredibly passive in what is essentially his own story, being a prisoner and victim to both personal and national history. The relative worth of the story lies in its importance in giving an account of a man caught in a frightening era of political turmoil and Kafkaesque, dehumanizing political forces.
Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon. Trans. Hardy, Daphne. New York: Bantam, 1968.
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