Darkness at Noon peeks into Soviet Russia

“The cell door slammed behind Rubashov.”

With those words, Arthur Koestler hurls readers into the life — and impending death — of ex-Commissar of the People Rubashov, a man so powerful and so invisible that his full name is needed for identification only on his cell door.

Identification of review of novel that wasn't a bestseller but has become a classic.Rubashov had been expecting, dreading arrest.

He knows his fate because he has been responsible for the disappearance of many others.

Readers must piece together Rubashov’s story from his memories, tap-coded conversations with other prisoners, and the interrogations.

He had risen through the ranks of the Party, finally acquiring diplomatic status.

His work with foreigners abroad provided ample facts that could be manipulated when Number 1, the party head himself, wanted Rubashov out of the way.

Rubashov had learned to see behind the Party’s rhetoric even while complying with its demands. He was not a subversive, as charged. He was, however, tired of the whole political machine.

Rubashov writes in his diary, “The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.”

His interrogations include some of the milder forms of torture. Rubashov isn’t broken, just worn down.

The last straw is when his interrogator is replaced: He, too, has been found expendable.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Trans. Daphne Hardy. Scribner Classics, ©1941. 272 p.
My grade: A

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

About the author: The Budapest-born Koestler was a communist in the 1930s and spent time in the Soviet Union. He left the party in 1938, was captured by Fascist forces in Spain and sentenced to death. The British intervened, and Koestler went to France where he was again arrested for his political views. Released in 1940, he went to England where he lived until his death in 1983.

Dr. Zhivago Died with Cold War

Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago hit bookshelves in 1958 when American fear of Communists could be measured in home bomb shelters and elementary school air raid drills. The novel became a bestseller and inspired a movie whose title song dominated the air waves.

I vaguely recall the movie as a long series of photographs of snow and people in fur hats. The novel isn’t quite that interesting.

A rogue lawyer sexually exploits a young girl. She later becomes a nurse and has an affair with Dr. Zhivago, who lost his parents and family fortune thanks to the same lawyer. The lovers become separated from their families and also from each other.

As the Communists take over the country, Zhivago dies, Laura disappears, but Russia goes on.

Pasternak holds his characters at arm’s length and describes them in generalizations: this one is beautiful, that one is intelligent. None of the characters emerges as a real person. They’re all just people in fur hats. The Russian way of naming people compounds the difficulty of recognizing individuals. In a single paragraph, Zhivago may be referred to as Zhivago, Yura, Yurochka, and Yurri Andreievich.

Watch the film instead of reading the book. Neither is particularly entertaining, but the film is shorter.

Dr. Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak
Trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari
Pantheon, 1958
519+ pages
#1 bestseller for 1958
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni