First Sentence: The cell door slammed behind Rubashov.
Rating: 2/3 (meh)
Darkness at Noon is about a man named NS Rubashov. Though it's never named, his country is a fictionalized Soviet Union, and Rubashov was one of the heroes of the Revolution that brought what the book calls The Party into power. Unfortunately for everyone involved, things have gone bad, and Rubashov is arrested at the beginning of the book and accused of plotting against the Party and its leader.
He hasn't really done any such thing, but that doesn't really matter to his interrogators or to those who want him out of the way. He's able to communicate through a system of taps with the inmates in the cells on either side of him, and learns from one who else is in the prison and some of the movements of the guards. As he paces back and forth in his cell for days on end, he reflects on his past as as revolutionary and all the different compromises and betrayals he's been through.
A little bit like my experience with Animal Farm, this book really made me wish that I knew more about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union. The sketchy details I remember from high school history class just aren't cutting it these days.
The book and the story it tells are undoubtedly powerful. At one point a character describes how he didn't know there were such a thing as minutes to break up the hour until he was a teenager, and you realize the magnitude of the change that has taken place within the lifetimes of the characters. There are several scenes like that, that make you sit up and take notice. At the other end of the spectrum, there's a character in the book who is primarily referred to only as "Hare-lip," and I didn't enjoy it any more in this book than I did in The Princess and the Goblin. I won't comment on the prose style of a rushed translation, either. Rubashov's relationship with his secretary, Arlova, reads very differently in the #MeToo era than it would've a few years ago, much less when the book was published. She's one of two female characters in the novel, both of whom are secretaries.
Darkness at Noon had a couple of strikes against it before I even opened the cover.
Most gravely, for the purposes of this blog, is that The List is supposed to be the Top 100 English language novels of the 20th century, and Darkness at Noon was originally written in German. This was apparently justified in the late 90s by the fact that the original German manuscript was believed to have been lost in the Second World War prior to its publication, making the English text the original published version, and therefore the authoritative one. I am not convinced by this. I'm even less convinced having learned that the German manuscript was discovered in 2015. (Last year, a new translation by Philip Boehm was published. I read the original translation by Daphne Hardy.) This may be a great 20th century novel, but it's not an English one, and it has no business being on The List.
The second strike against the book is that at some point, I got an inkling that Arthur Koestler was a known creep. Having read his Wikipedia page, it's hard to tell just how much of a creep he was. One biographer called him a serial rapist, while another seemed to think he was just a playboy. Getting into the interpretation of playboy vs serial rapist is of course beyond the scope of this review but is definitely enough to give one pause. Furthermore, Koestler and his wife died in a suicide pact which he may or may not have coerced her into.
The real trouble, though, is that somehow I just failed to connect with this book. I'm not sure if it's the gap in my Russian history knowledge, or the prejudices I had going in, or what exactly, but I just wasn't that invested in Rubashov or the horrible things that were happening to him. Certainly it's a good read in conjunction with the more-fictionalized 1984. Maybe The List has had me under its thumb for so long that I just can't care anymore.