Apparently there is no longer a German-language text for this novel. There’s something interesting about an anti-Communist German language book published in 1941 that doesn’t make you cringe at what it must contain. But there have been a lot of really good anti-Communist texts, along with some good pro-Communist texts. This book is part of the faction of books written by former party insiders. Calling them disillusioned seems a little weak tea, because they are often reacting to deep fissures, the deaths of many thousands, and a bitter betrayal of the tenets they once believed in. For other good, anti-Communist from the inside books, see: Victor Serge.
Right now, America is in a crisis, obviously. Novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, which I will review soon after I finish re-reading, remind us to protect against threats from without. But this novel reminds us to protect against the threats from within. Our protagonist has been arrested for his crimes against the Party.
Communism is very strange to me. It’s so often the go-to boogie man in books and film and politics…the Rocky IVs and Red Dawns and Indiana Jones-s of my childhood, or a laughably weird punchline in movies like The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming or Dr Strangelove, and even more weird feelings in The Americans where they come off as an overbearing boss, something real to believe in, a counterweight to the craziness of Reagan-era America, and a truly depraved system that chews up its own.
In addition, I have been reading a lot of Russian literature in the last year and will likely continue to do so. But the Russia of Darkness at Noon is not the Russia of Anna Karenina is not the Russia of Putin is not the Russia of Nabokov. But also, it is. The singular common factor in all Russian novels is a samovar brewing in the corner. This is NOT a Russian novel however. It is a Hungarian novel, written in German, taking on the Russian question. And maybe that is one of the differences. To be outside one system gives you enough distance to not try to humanize it, but to be within another gives you the insight to speak truth without exaggeration. Maybe that’s why this novel rings quite true, without feeling at all like hyperbole.
Rubashov (the protagonist) believes in the Party, or did, until he didn’t. And even if his current feelings are unclear, his understanding is not. He knows what is happening, and what will happen. He is not the protagonist of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading whose increasingly convoluted experiences in prison devolve farther and farther away from reality. Rubashov understands everything. And so, he waits. He waits and he looks for comfort. Comfort comes from his memories, from his life, and from his conversations via the tapping of codes on prison walls with his glasses. He waits, knowing that he will die from execution. But this isn’t a novel of dread. It’s strange that way.
Koestler writes: “None of this did Richard know; but Rubashov knew it. The movement lay in ruins, but its Intelligence and Control Department still functioned; it was perhaps the only part of it which did function, and at that time Rubashov stood at the head of it. The bull-necked young man in the Sunday suit did not know that either; he only know that Anny had been taken away and that one had to go on distributing pamphlets and scribbling on walls; and that Rubashov, who was a comrade from the Central Committee of the Party, was to be trusted like a father; but that one must not show this feeling nor betray any weakness. For he who was soft and sentimental was no good for the task and had to be pushed aside–pushed out of the movement, into solitude and the outer darkness.”
And yet, and yet.
“‘The Party is going through a severe trial. Other revolutionary parties have been through even more difficult ones. The deciding factor is our unbroken will. Whoever goes soft and weak does not belong in our ranks.'”
“‘What I don’t understand,’ he said, ‘is this. You now openly admit that for years you have had the conviction that we were ruining the Revolution; and in the same breath you deny that you belonged to the opposition and that you plotted against us. Do you really expect me to believe that you sat watching us with your hand in your lap–while, according to your conviction, we led country and Party to destruction?'”
Because of my position within the Left (never Radical, never revolutionary, but romantically inclined), I have always had a weird kind of affection and conflicted connection to Communism. Anti-communism American BS has always felt propagandist and false, and I grew up in the 80s, so I got my share. But seeing anything that was like, yeah, eff man, let’s be Communists! also strikes me as wrongheaded if I am being generous, but ultimately childish, if I am being honest. Powerful regimes are truly awful. This is the account of a powerful regime, bent on staying in power; this is Ideology and its vulgar logic on full display. What makes this novel not truly terrifying is the calmness of the protagonist; what makes this novel truly terrifying is the inevitability that creates that calmness. This isn’t a dystopian novel…because it more or less already happened, so unlike even the saddest of those, there’s no glint of a way out.