Reviewed by Joseph M. GiardielloWolf Bait
Before addressing one of the finest examples of modern literature, let's get one thing out of the way: President Bill Clinton bears no resemblance to Rubashov, the protagonist in Arthur Koestler's classic Darkness at Noon. At least not a positive one which he wanted aide Sidney Blumenthal to believe when he compared his own prosecution to that of Rubashov.
Briefly, both men pleaded innocent before ultimately admitting their guilt. That's about where the similarity ends. Although certainly guilty of other things, Rubashov was innocent of the crimes of which he was accused.
Rubashov accepted his punishment - his debt to the past. Clinton? Well, we all know that story. Maybe too much of that story.
Immediately following the Russian Revolution of 1917, debate and open discussion were the norm among the party faithful who labored so diligently to bring the party to power. By the 1930's, with the founder of the revolution dead, and "No. 1" firmly in control, criticism is no longer tolerated. Darkness at Noon is a fictionalized account of Stalin's purges of the 1930's in which Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov is arrested after years of service to the party.
"BRAVO! THE WOLVES DEVOUR EACH OTHER," declared Rubashov's prison neighbor, No. 402, an unrepentant monarchist, when he is told that Rubashov has been jailed for "political divergencies." He's certainly guilty of crimes, just not those of which he is accused. Has he betrayed the revolution? Only to the extent that the revolution has betrayed the people. Rubashov's rationalizations make sense to him, but they probably would not to the trail of bodies left in his wake. We meet just three of them but know there are more.
The first is Richard, a cell leader in Germany, 1933, where the Nazi government has largely exterminated the party. Richard's death sentence is delivered in a museum under the watchful eye of the Virgin Mary, whose outstretched hands come back to haunt Rubashov in the form of another prisoner, his hands outstretched for bread from his jailers.
Another is Little Lowey; a very different kind of party member than Richard. He has principles. A dock worker and successful party organizer with friends in every pub, Lowey is asked to assist in violating the international boycott against Italy for its aggression in Africa so those "Over There" can continue their industrial growth. This obviously does not sit well with Lowey who is expelled from the party and denounced as an agent provocateur. He hangs himself.
The victim that sheds the most light on the character of Rubashov is his former secretary and lover, Arlova. Her brother and sister-in-law arrested, she is recalled home where she is imprisoned and slated for execution. To the end, she continues to believe Rubashov will come to her defense. Yet, to preserve himself for the continuation of the Revolution, Rubashov remains silent. Her ghost lingers to haunt him in a myriad of ways: when a prisoner is dragged through the prison on his way to being shot, he imagines her in the same situation, wondering if she died in silence; he remembers the back of her neck, knowing that is where traitors are shot; and he remembers the scent she left when she was in his bed.
We also meet Rubashov's interrogators. The first is, like himself, aveteran of the civil war and an old party stalwart. Both interrogator and interrogatee understand it is simply pure chance that their roles are not reversed. Like Rubashov, Ivanov also has some misgivings about the direction the party has taken and he makes the mistake of revealing them to his deputy at the prison. Ivanov's brain meets with a "charge of lead" even before Rubashov's.
The deputy is more direct in his sinister behavior. He has no illusions of serving the people. To him, the ends justify the means. There can be no opposition to what the party says, as personified by No. 1. Any minor dissent is treason deserving of the ultimate penalty.
Most of the characters in Darkness at Noon remain relatively unfurled. They are only important in how they help lead Rubashov to his "grammatical fiction" that the Old Guard is guilty "although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves."
In the end, does Rubashov repent for his disloyalty to the party or for following the party line so faithfully even when it went against his better judgement? He ponders, "And what if, after all if No. 1 were in the right? In here, in dirt and blood and lies, after all and in spite of everything, the grandiose foundations of the future were being laid? Had not history always been an inhumane, unscrupulous builder, mixing its mortar of lies, blood and mud?"
Can an individual who did so much to bring the current power structure into being suddenly disown his own part in what has been built?
Alas, such a conversion is probably impossible for the old Bolshevik. Rubashov is likely not lamenting his own demise at the hands of a corrupt party, just the fact that the party's plan was not followed by the right people.
Of course, today it's become a familiar lie. We last heard it with the collapse of socialism in the old Soviet bloc - the system didn't fail, it was the people who tried to institute it. We'll hear the same thing when the workers paradise that is modern day Cuba disintegrates.
We want to believe, when Rubashov says his account with history is being paid by his death, that he has rejected the party and its totalitarian methods. He even allows that maybe the party's course wasn't perfect: "We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logica; we are sailing without ethical ballast. Perhaps it did not suit mankind to sail without ballast. And perhaps reason alone was a defective compass, which led one on such a winding, twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the midst."
But such sentiment is quickly extinguished, yielding to the former darkness, "Perhaps the Revolution [came] too early, an abortion with monstrous, deformed limbs." He even compares his situation with that of Moses' forty years in the desert, before he is shown the Promised Land.
Unlike Moses, however, Rubashov dies without this reassurance of a better
future. His suffering is futile and senseless.
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