Saturday, April 15, 2006

"Darkness at Noon"

Within twelve hours of each other two political scientists recommended to me the same novel to illustrate what life might be like in a country where the executive does not have to check with an independent judge before throwing someone in prison. The recommenders--Harry Pohlman of Dickinson College and Mary Thornberry of Davidson College--both pointed to Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Professor Thornberry put it succinctly:

A vivid picture of what happens when the state is allowed to imprison people without challenge. Even the most loyal supporters are not immune from the state's oppression.
A couple of years ago Michael Schaub at Bookslut wrote about the novel:

Darkness at Noon is a near-perfect novel. It opens with Rubashov's arrest--which takes place, of course, in the middle of the night, a trademark of not just the Cheka, but of all secret police forces in all dictatorships. There's a picture of No. 1 hanging on the wall above Rubashov's bed, and it's clear there are pictures like this above all the beds in the nation. It's a chilling image, and the reader can't help but imagine Stalin's face in the frame, staring out with the familiar bright eyes and big mustache. The rest of the novel follows Rubashov's imprisonment and interrogation, and it follows it to its logical, sadly inevitable conclusion. The last two paragraphs--you can imagine what happens--are among the most quoted in the literature of Soviet communism, and there's no way it could be more chilling, more coldly effective and heartbreakingly true. (One of the best works to reference the closing of Darkness at Noon is Martin Amis's brilliant history/memoir Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. I mention it here because, like Koestler's novel, absolutely no one should go without reading it; it's the first great nonfiction book of the century.) ....

When it comes to political fiction, we've become willing to sacrifice good prose for good ideas. Take Orwell, whose genius was unquestionable, and whose fiction is--well, if you're being charitable, you could say "below average." The reason that Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm are (and ought to be) taught in schools, and it has nothing to do with Orwell's narrative skills. Koestler demonstrates you needn't sacrifice prose for ideas, and that's a valuable lesson for all aspiring activist writers.

One note: Darkness at Noon is certainly meant to suggest the Soviet Union and Stalin is obviously the model for "No. 1"; yet while the characters have Russian names, no country is actually named in the book.

Harry Pohlman is A. Lee Fritschler Professor of Public Policy and Chair of the Political Science Department at Dickinson College. He is the author of The Whole Truth?: A Case of Murder on the Appalachian Trail and the textbook Constitutional Debate in Action.

Mary Thornberry is Chair of the Department of Political Science at Davidson College and author of numerous scholarly articles and reviews.

Thanks to both professors for the recommendation.

--Marshal Zeringue