Subscribe to Computing Intelligence

Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Review: Darkness at Noon

I actually finished the book Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, about a week ago on my flight back to Toronto, but I put off writing this review until after I had written the first part on computability (and that clearly took me too long...). The author seems to have been quite influential and prestigious, but I will admit I had never actually heard of either him or this book before having it recommended (and handed) to me.

I think a little bit of context for the author's life is useful in understanding this book, so I will start with that. Koestler was born in Hungary in 1905, but was primarily educated in Austria. He joined the Communist Party of Germany, but grew disillusioned and left after a few years. He led a fairly tumultuous life, at various times serving as a war correspondent and communist agent in France and Spain, being imprisoned and sentenced to death in Spain (although he was exchanged for another prisoner before his sentence was carried out), and ultimately fleeing to Britain to avoid the Nazis. Interestingly, Darkness at Noon was originally published in German, but the original German text has been lost and all modern German versions have been back-translated from English.

The story itself tells the tale of a Bolshevik named Rubashov. Formerly a prominent member of the Russian revolution and communist party, the book details Rubashov's arrest and imprisonment awaiting execution by the Soviet state under Stalin's rule. The story primarily unfolds as a combination of dialogue between Rubashov and his interrogators, and as internal monologues, memories, and diary snippets from Rubashov. I found that the style was at first rather confusing, particularly because I was not sure if the story was meant to be based in an actual contemporary (to the time of writing) political setting, or if it was conjecture along the lines of 1984 (my confusion stemmed from the description of the aggressive German crosses worn by the officers who arrested Rubashov the first time in a flashback. I later realised that the German arrest was while he was serving as a communist agent in Germany, and the book was set in an actual historical setting rather than some fictitious communist state in Germany). Once I got used to the style, though, I found the novel to be quite engaging. It had quite a bit of the depressive charm of Eastern European literature, and it was interesting on both a psychological level as well as a political thought level.

While the book has been described as anti-communist, I do not think that is necessarily an accurate description. The story is quite anti-Soviet, but that is not the same thing. There were a few times when I wished I could leap into the story to correct what I saw as failures in the characters' arguments, but even when the arguments were bad it was a fascinating historical account of the thought processes followed by the Bolshevik movement (and I thus do not rule out the possibility that the flawed arguments were purposeful). I do not wish to go into any details, however, as I do not want to give anything away.

In summary, the book was quite fascinating. While I found the style awkward at first, those feelings quickly faded to the background. I think that if a reader did not have at least a cursory background in Russian (and general European) history from the early 1900s the novel might be slightly difficult to follow, but that shouldn't scare anyone off as I was able to follow along with just my high school knowledge. If you are interested in political thought and recent history, I recommend picking up a copy of Darkness at Noon.