There are places darker than a prison cell – Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

The last hearing

Reading the blurb reminds me so much of George Orwell’s 1984. Keywords like revolution, torture, Party, and totalitarian are enough, but this is not a dystopian novel. It’s a political drama that focuses on Rubashov, a middle-aged revolutionary who is arrested at the dead of the night and taken to a dark prison cell. Here, he is interrogated. Well actually, it is less of that than being asked to sign a confession that the Party made up for him.

Okay, that part is vague and convoluted and, let me say dark, so I will try my best to sum it up without giving too much away. Rubashov is a Party frontrunner who is accused of leading oppositional turbulence and of plotting the murder of No. 1, another frontrunner. Who this No. 1 is, I do not know his name yet. In fact, some of the characters here are named after numbers, based on their prison cell numbers. Rubashov is No. 404, but of course, he is never referred to as that. His neighbors are not 403 and 405, but 402 and 406. So you see, odd-numbered cells stay on one side and across them are the even-numbered ones.

So you might think this is boring, all that talk about the Russian Revolution and descriptions of lonely inmates and filthy bunkers. On the contrary, it’s entertaining. It’s not the regular type of prison where the inmates are always clamoring for food or for violence. Remember, the inmates in this prison are quite high-profile, so they have a little class.

In fact, the prisoners do not see each other. Their cells are so blocked off from the rest of the world that the only way that they can communicate to adjacent prison cells is through wall tapping. This is where the narrative can get really entertaining at one time and tense on other times. There’s a simple tapping code that seems to be an unspoken knowledge among the prisoners. It’s so simple that I sometimes find myself tapping random words just to see how good I am. If you want to find that out, read it.

So yes, we are wondering if our protagonist will sign off whatever papers are needed by the Party. In this bleak novel, anything could happen. Whatever Rubashov does will not lead to a happy ending. If he signs the confession, he’ll still stay in prison with a broken dignity and hopes of amnesty. If he doesn’t, he’ll meet his execution.

So you see, there’s no way out. What’s worse is that the person convincing him is a former colleague who thinks exactly like him. So how does Rubashov think?

“For a man with your past,” Ivanov went on, “this sudden revulsion against experimenting is rather naïve. Every year several million people are killed quite pointlessly by epidemics and other natural catastrophes. And we should shrink from sacrificing a few hundred thousand for the most promising experiment in history? Not to mention the legions of those who die of undernourishment and tuberculosis in coal and quicksilver mines, rice-fields and cotton plantations. No one takes any notice of them; nobody asks why or what for; but if here we shoot a few thousand objectively harmful people, the humanitarians all over the world foam at the mouth. Yes, we liquidated the parasitic part of the peasantry and let it die of starvation. It was a surgical operation which had to be done once and for all; but in the good old days before the Revolution just as many died in any dry year–only senselessly and pointlessly. The victims of the Yellow River floods in China amount sometimes to hundreds of thousands. Nature is generous in her senseless experiments on mankind. Why should mankind not have the right to experiment on itself?”

Not exactly like that, but what I mean is that convincing an intelligent Rubashov calls for an intelligent Ivanov. By the way, what the latter said about nature and mankind is a little disturbing. There seems to be something wrong in his argument but it kind of makes sense especially if one does not believe in God and morality. So, do you think mankind may go on experimenting itself?

Date Started: May 1, 2012. 1:00 AM. Book #23 of 2012.

The Classics Challenge: Book #03 of 75.