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Darkness At Noon – Arthur Koestler

by Venky


Along with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We”; Aldous Huxley’s “A Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984”, Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon”, has to be one of the most dystopian of novels ever penned in the history of literature. Artfully cynical, lastingly bleak and thoroughly provocative, this book has rightly been described as “one of the few books written in this epoch which will survive it” by New Statesman

Nicolas Salmanovich Rubashov, ex-Commissar of the People, a domineering and powerful character, dedicated to the uplift of his “Party”, is aghast to experience a turning of the tables when on one cold evening, he is placed under arrest on the allegations of treason. The once invincible, indomitable and indefatigable spirit that was Rubashov undergoes a veritable catharsis and his momentous and melancholic reflections during the course of his trial form the heart, soul and spirit of this poignant and tragic work.  As Rubashov gets going on his anachronistic introspections, the reader is introduced to myriad handiworks of deceit, dare and deterrent espoused by the Party and executed by its dedicated servant Rubashov. The Supreme Commander of the Party, eerily referred to throughout the book as “No.1” is the monarch of all he surveys, virtually and symbolically as he hangs from  manifold photo frames nailed upon almost every wall of prominence. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Zamyatin’s “Benefactor”, Huxley’s “Mustapha Mond” and Orwell’s “Big Brother”, the leader is extraordinarily determined in his views and decrees that the sole punishment for even a trivial and inconsequential departure from the stance taken by the party is extermination.  Rubashov, seemingly shares an extremely cohesive equation with his much admired and feared (but never adored) leader and the exact moment wherein the disciple veers away from the preaching of his Master is one which cannot be ascertained with exactitude in the book. A revolutionary thus becomes a counter-revolutionary or is it the other way round? As one is left grappling to solve this quandary, Rubashov busies himself in trying to organize a movement to topple the regime of the totalitarian Government of No.1

Once arrested for treason, Rubashov is forced to spend his time in an isolated cell, blowing smoke rings from cigarettes which he chain smokes and being haunted by the deeds of his past. However, his most enthralling moments are experienced when he communicates with prisoners similarly isolated in cells to his right and left. Such a communication is accomplished by tapping on the walls by making use of the technique popularly known as the “quadratic alphabet”.  Such conversations range from the silly to the sublime and it also gives Rubashov an impartial perception of the feelings (or the lack of it) nursed for and about him by his humble and persecuted countrymen. Rubashov is subjected to an intense bout of interrogation, (sans use of physical violence or abuse), by at first, Comrade Ivanov, a former acquaintance of Rubashov and later by Gletkin, a giant of a man with a deep scar on his shaven pate. Gletkin, always attired in an impeccable uniform uses fatigue as his weapon and subjects Rubashov to an intermittent and unrelenting bout of questioning hardly providing the hapless, though illustrious prisoner more than a couple of hours of sleep. As Rubashov is broken down more emotionally, mentally and spiritually, he forces himself to accept the situation that he finds himself in and ruminates about life that has for him come a full circle. He requests for some stationary and scribbles some disjointed but searingly relevant passages and constructs, or rather re-constructs those phases of his life where he acted without rationale not restraint. For example he writes “The ultimate truth is penultimately always a falsehood. He who will be proved right in the end appears to be wrong and harmful before it”

As Gletkin produces witness who concoct and weave a fine tapestry of lies with a single motive to prosecute and persecute Nicolas Salmonovich Rubashov, the latter casts his now calm, still and almost ascetic mind to those times where he himself was almost a veritable epitome of people like Gletkin. He remembers time and again, with a tinge of remorse his remorseless action in sacrificing his beloved Secretary Arlova, who on the allegation of committing great disservice to the Party is arrested and ultimately executed. During the trial, Arlova, who also has an affair with Rubashov, calls out to him for help and redemption, but in vain as Rubashov calmly, allows his devoted and dedicated Secretary to bite the bullet as he perceives his survival and furtherance of a cause to be more important than her survival. But the image of Arlova lying next to him on the bed peacefully asleep with her head nestled over one of her arms continues to haunt Rubashov until the very end. Nursing a bad toothache and consistently cleaning his pince nez on his sleeve, he paces his tiny cell block till he grows tired and reaches a state of exhaustion.

The ubiquitous pince nez plays a prominent role throughout the book. It is as though the personality that is Rubashov changes every time the pince nez comes off and is put back on within a few seconds. Every time Gletkin adjusts the harshness of the lamp in the interrogation chamber with a view to causing extreme discomfort, Rubashov finds solace in gripping the pince nez and concentrating on his answers and statements. But as tough as a man might be, there comes a limit to what he can endure. Rubashov being a mere mortal proves to be no exception to the rule. Tapping his pince nez on the wall, he signals to his fellow prisoner by using the mode of the “quadratic alphabet”, that he is “going to Capitulate” and accordingly signs the dossiers of confession. In one of his nostalgic ruminations, Rubashov scribbles down this stark and reflective passage:

“I was one of those. I have thought and acted as I have to; I destroyed people whom I was fond of, and gave powers to others that I did not like. History put me where I stood; I have exhausted the credit which she accorded me; if I was right I have nothing to repent of, If wrong I will pay”

Similarly during the conclusion of the trial when Rubashov is asked as to whether he has anything left to say in his defense, at first decides to maintain a stoic demeanor, but yielding to temptation recites a fervent and frank passage of repentance, vitriolic in the chastisement of himself and rebuking all those principles and ethics for which he has stood by till such day, or for which he did not dare to stand, as may be appropriate. Standing in front of a jury which is baying for his blood like a pack of wolves, Rubashov recants

“There is nothing for which one could die, if one died without having repented and unreconciled with the Party and the Movement. Therefore, on the threshold of my last hour, I bend my knees to the country, to the masses and to the whole people. The political masquerade, the mummery of discussions and conspiracy are over. We were politically long dead before the Citizen Prosecutor demanded out heads. Woe unto the defeated, whom history treads into the dust….With that my task is ended. I have paid; my account with history is settled. To ask for mercy would be derision. I have nothing more to say”

This is the story of a man mired in his murky past and facing an uncertain future. This is the story of a man who genuinely believes in his foibles and feats. This is the story of a man who takes his own betrayal in stride with equal equanimity and poise as redemption for having indulged in a few unfair acts himself. More than anything else, this is the story of a man in a pince nez, who is at various points in his lifetime a savior, a sinner and a salvager!

Darkness At Noon – Profoundly Illuminating!!

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