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  • E.G. Maladroit

'Darkness at Noon' - A book everyone should read

‘Darkness at Noon’ is a study of complicity and guilt, which is what makes it so superior to other, more obvious, condemnations of Stalin in literature. Rubashov is distinctly unlikeable throughout – far from the helpless ‘victim’ some reviewers try to portray him as, he is to blame for a number of atrocities under the regime, including personally betraying a series of characters. He is also generally repulsive – his memories of any female figures throughout the book are always accompanied by a detailed description of their breasts, whilst there is a certain ambiguity around his relationship with a key victim of the book – Arlova – whose lack of reaction to his (being her boss, so holding direct authority over her) consistent molesting of her, he takes as consent. This benefits the book greatly, as it prevents the audience from over identifying or hugely sympathising with Rubashov, which makes his fate less black and white – to a certain extent, he is simply meeting the fate he deserves (something reaffirmed by his consistent refusal to accept responsibility for his actions). And yet, there is sympathy: Koestler’s aforementioned experiences of imprisonment, where he was kept in solitary confinement, expecting death, means he constructs a believable and harrowing narrative surrounding Rubashov’s possible execution, where one can plainly feel the horror of what is about to happen – the final conversations of the book, tapped between Rubashov and his neighbouring cell mate, are particularly moving. To me, the willingness not to fetishize victimhood with one-note sympathy trap characters makes the book infinitely more valuable, because it allows crimes to be condemnable within themselves, rather than exaggerating their ‘badness’ with stale ‘good guy’ characters for dramatic effect.

This lack of reverting to black and white pretensions is furthered by the ideological dialogue the book creates – often carrying a debate over the ‘the end justifies the means’ philosophy which Rubashov both perpetrates and fights against. This is emphasised by some of the other central characters – Ivanov and Gletkin, prison guards – who assist this narrative of questioning, justifying the ideology from different perspectives. In a way, it oddly validates what happens, making the choices being made understandable rather than inexplicable contemptible acts of violence – it avoids the simple demonisation of ‘the party’ created in Animal Farm, where all crimes are disingenuously simplified to corruption, something which mischaracterises the Stalinist USSR, in my opinion. Instead, it allows the ideology of Stalinism to be questioned for its real flaws.

Finally, I feel it also perfectly epitomises what dystopian fictions should aim for. The reassignment of proper nouns, such as the names of countries (Nazi Germany is referred to as ‘The Dictatorship’ whilst the Soviet Government is simply ‘The Party’), allows an uncontrived sense of the ominous potential these societies hold in appearing anywhere. It prevents it from becoming too specific to the era on which is was closely based. It is uncontrived as it does not come across as a forced storyline of ‘this could happen to you’, which is partially a merit of it not being set in the future (instead it’s in more of an abstract, ambiguous time period), and its fixation on portraying real events (making it far more impactful than the fantastical happenings implied by animal farm, a book any self-respecting historian should scorn).

To conclude: I have an immense passion for Darkness at Noon, and I thoroughly recommend reading it to everyone. It is short – around 200 pages – and yet highly refined and impactful. A successful dystopia, critique of Stalinist ideology and, overall, simply a moving and emotionally complex story. Regardless of your interests, it is an engrossing book that can be easily read within a day – and is well worth it. I went as far as to choose to base an entire coursework essay off of it - it's undoubtedly one of my favorite books.


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