Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler, who lived one of the great adventuring lives of the 20th century, has in death left us one last surprise. When, on March 1, 1983, the 77-year-old Hungarian-born writer entered into a suicide pact with his much younger wife, Cynthia, months after discovering he had leukemia, it was thought—including by Koestler himself—that the full original German manuscript of his finest novel, Darkness at Noon, was lost. Recalling the extraordinary circumstances under which the book was completed, in Paris in 1940—arrests, searches, seizures, and internment in French concentration camps—Koestler, in the second volume of his autobiography, Invisible Writing, recalls, “In the end, I was again arrested and the original German version of the book was lost. But by that time the English translation had been completed. It was dispatched to London ten days before the German invasion of France started, and the book thus had another narrow escape.”

The translator of this early and devastating indictment of Stalin’s show trials was Daphne Hardy, a 22-year-old English sculptress whom Koestler was sleeping with at the time. In a cramped apartment on Rue Dombasle, a curtain hanging between them, Koestler wrote and Hardy translated as the Phoney War outside grew ever more real. Each made a terrifying escape to England, where the couple was re-united “across wire-mesh in the presence of a uniformed guard” in a London prison—Koestler, who lacked an entry permit, having been arrested on arrival. By then the page proofs of what was first called “The Vicious Circle” were ready. Hardy informed Koestler of the new English title, which Michael Scammell, Koestler’s biographer, tells us she derived from the Book of Job: “They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night.” It was Hardy’s translation—her first and, quite literally, a labor of love—which went on to become a modern classic, translated into more than 30 languages, a staple of poli-sci reading lists in America (where I first read it) and credited with playing a part in the defeat of the Communist Party in postwar France, where it sold over 400,000 copies.

This was how things stood for decades, until 2016. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Scammell announced to the world that a German doctoral student named Matthias Wessel had made “a remarkable discovery” the year before. Searching through the archives of Europa Verlag, Koestler’s publisher, in the Zurich Central Library, Wessel came upon a “cryptic entry: ‘Koestler, Arthur. Rubaschow: Roman. Typoskript, März 1940, 326 pages.’” Nikolai Salmanovich Rubashov is the central character of Darkness at Noon; Wessel had stumbled upon the original German manuscript of the novel.

I first read the Hardy translation at Amherst, where it was prescribed reading. I remember it as prescient but stilted—“awfully wooden,” to quote Scammell. Years later, when I discovered Koestler in English—he is one of those writers, like Conrad and Nabokov, who flowered in their adoptive language—I was staggered by the quality of his prose. Books such as The Lotus and the Robot (1960), Koestler’s marvelous comparison of tradition in India and modernity in Japan, seemed to have been written by a writer infinitely more gifted than the author of Darkness at Noon. Now we know why.

There is nothing stilted about the new Darkness at Noon, deftly translated by Philip Boehm. It is a seamless, chilling book about the demands ideology makes on truth. Koestler, a card-carrying Communist from 1931 to 1938, came to the party in an age of extremism. Koestler, Scammell notes, was attracted to stark binaries, which “echoed Communist assertions that the middle-of-the-road Social Democrats were ‘worse than Nazis’” for splitting the working-class vote. Koestler, ever in need of secular religion, fell for a series of -isms, from Zionism and Freudianism to Marxism, only to turn against them later with equal virulence. Invisible Writing opens with a quote from Picasso: “I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water,” to which the writer adds, “and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and the corpses of the drowned.” Koestler, like Orwell, was transformed by the Spanish Civil War—working for the Republican side, he was held prisoner by Franco—and grew still more disillusioned as the full horrors of Soviet Communism became clear in the ensuing years, now through Stalin’s show trials, now the cynicism of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

There is nothing stilted about the new Darkness at Noon. It is a seamless, chilling book about the demands ideology makes on truth.

Darkness at Noon opens with Rubashov’s arrest. He is, in Koestler’s words, a member “of the old Bolshevik guard, his manner of thinking modelled on Nikolai Bukharin’s.” Though it is never said, the novel takes place in what is clearly a Soviet prison. Over the course of three interrogations, Rubashov, here by reasoned arguments, there by sleep deprivation and the glare lamp, is broken down. Despite having survived imprisonment under the Nazis, he ultimately confesses, like Bukharin, to outlandish acts of treason. Truth is immaterial. Those famous lines that come at the end—“What is true is what serves mankind, and whatever harms it is a lie”—are today, in this season of alternative facts and ritualistic public apologies, as frightening as when I first read them as an undergraduate 20 years ago. We live in an age when many old books, such as Orwell’s 1984 and Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, are suddenly new again. With sentences such as “In periods of relative immaturity only demagogues manage to invoke the ‘higher reason’ of the people,” Darkness at Noon effortlessly joins their ranks.

Koestler marshals the full force of personal experience in the creation of an enclosed world—a prison of the mind no less than an actual prison—of pale electric light, stale yellowish snow, and a patch of blue over the machine-gun tower. What stands out is the insidious resemblance between men like Number One (Stalin) and “the jumping jack with the little moustache” (a line newly restored in this edition) at times in history when the far left and right are full of passionate intensity, and the middle ground is actively proscribed. “But now I feel I am being suffocated by you,” Koestler wrote in his breakup letter to the party, “and I have the elementary need to breathe, to think, and to write freely again, and to speak my mind.”

It is the individual’s quest to breathe in the close air of dogma that Koestler dramatizes in Darkness at Noon. Now, when the air is heavy again, it is this theme that adds an unexpected layer of newness to this old book.

Aatish Taseer is the author of five books, including The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges