Darkness in literature: Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Koestler's black indictment of Stalin's police state helped to alter the 20th century's intellectual climate. Sadly it's all too relevant today

My Penguin Modern Classics edition of Darkness at Noon has on its cover a detail from Francis Bacon's terrifying canvas Man in Blue V 1954. The whole image is pervaded with a blue so dark it's practically black. A suited man is sitting at a table. The vertical lines of the curtains behind him seem to be the bars of a cell – he is perhaps a prisoner facing interrogation. Most shockingly, his face is scratched out, erased; what he is, has stood for, has been obliterated.

It's a superb image to accompany Arthur Koestler's tale of a seasoned Bolshevik who is arrested and tried by the authorities, eventually "confesses" and is killed. In a note at the beginning of what is one of the most celebrated political novels of the 20th century, Koestler wrote that the Bolshevik, Rubashov, "is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials". Cheery holiday fare this isn't, but it's one of those books you really have to read.

Though Stalin is not named – the leader whose portrait looks down from so many walls is called 'No.1' – Darkness at Noon characterises the betrayal by the Stalin-era USSR of the socialist utopian dream. What was going to be wonderful has turned bad. As Orwell wrote, Koestler "is writing about darkness, but it is darkness at what ought to be noon." Even if you skim the pages, the words "dark" and "darkness" announce their presence. In the opening, when Rubashov is arrested in the middle of the night by the secret police, we are told he is enduring a nightmare of a "dark cell"; that it "was cold, dark and very quiet in the staircase"; that as the car drives him away it "was still dark" and the moon hangs above them "pale and cold".

Even more strikingly, in the final two pages, as the broken Rubashov walks down into a cellar to his death, the "stairs were narrow and badly lit", "He was now nearly blind". Asking "where was the Promised Land", he reflects that "he, Nicolas Salmanovich Rubashov, had not been taken to the top of a mountain; and wherever his eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night." After he is hit with a dull blow to the head, "It got dark, the sea carried him rocking on its nocturnal surface." And as he catches the odour of a leather revolver belt, and sees a shapeless figure above him, he asks, just before all becomes quiet, "in whose name did it raise the dark pistol barrel?"

Koestler had himself been a signed-up devotee of Marxism-Leninism. In 1931, a Hungarian journalist in Germany, he applied for membership of the Communist Party and, impressed by the achievements of the Soviet Union during a spell there in the early 1930s, began to write Comintern propaganda. After Franco's rebellion he went to Spain during the Civil War as a Soviet agent (he met WH Auden at a "crazy party" in Valencia). Having been exposed, he was imprisoned: like Rubashov he was put in solitary confinement and fully expected to be shot. (He was released following an international campaign.) His retreat from the communist cause wasn't immediate – he left the Party at the time of Stalin's purges in 1938, and lost much of what was left of his faith on the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact. "Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of prison literature," Orwell wrote of Darkness at Noon, "it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow 'confessions' by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods." That early note in the book on the grandee Bolsheviks who inspired the character of Rubashov continues: "Several of them were personally known to the author. This book is dedicated to their memory."

Koestler wrote the novel in German while living in Paris, from where he escaped in 1940 just before the Nazi troops arrived. The text was lost. Darkness at Noon owes its publication to the decision of his lover in Paris, the sculptor Daphne Hardy, to translate it into English before she herself escaped. Koestler, having deserted from the French Foreign Legion, fled to Portugal, where he heard a bogus report that the ship on which Hardy – and his manuscript – were travelling to Britain had been sunk. He attempted suicide (with pills purloined from Walter Benjamin).

It's hard not to get distracted by Koestler's utterly astonishing life story, even if you manage to put to one side the disquieting accusation that he was a "serial rapist". To get a sense of it, here's a paragraph from a piece in the New York Review of Books by Anne Applebaum:

"Along the way he had lunch with Thomas Mann, got drunk with Dylan Thomas, made friends with George Orwell, flirted with Mary McCarthy, and lived in Cyril Connolly's London flat. In 1940, Koestler was released from a French detention camp, partly thanks to the intervention of Harold Nicholson and Noël Coward. In the 1950s, he helped found the Congress for Cultural Freedom ... In the 1960s, he took LSD with Timothy Leary. In the 1970s, he was still giving lectures that impressed, among others, the young Salman Rushdie."

Applebaum has long been interested in Darkness at Noon as an anti-communist document, because it was "with Orwell's Animal Farm and Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom … one of the books that helped turn the tide on the intellectual front line, and ensured that the West prevailed". That's a tidy claim to fame and continued significance. And yet, from today's perspective, to recruit the novel so straightforwardly to one side in the Cold War, to freeze it in history, is almost to sell it short. Darkness at Noon still lives as a study of fear and victimhood, of state brutality, of unjust imprisonment, of interrogation and forced confession. The west may have "prevailed" as Applebaum suggests, but Koestler's tale of lies and oppression is all too chillingly contemporary: "Rubashov lay on his bunk and stared into the dark ... He saw enter two uniformed officials ... he only wished to get it over quickly ... If they beat me now, I will sign anything they like."

Paul Laity

The GuardianTramp

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