Darkness at Noon

Abstract painting, titled 'Bluebird'
Bluebird (c) Matthew Herring

Another book I have read recently is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (Penguin, 1964, tr. Daphne Hardy). This little novel is a penetrating and fascinating study on the psychology of soviet communism and of imprisonment. Rubashov, a former Bolshevik leader from the circle of Lenin is in prison awaiting death during one of Stalin’s infamous purges. The novel consists of Rubashov’s interior monologues as he paces up and down in his cell and his various interrogations before his urbane former peer, Ivanov, and the brutally effective second-generation communist, Gletkin.

At one point, following his interrogation by Ivanov, Rubashov discovers a silent partner in his internal monologues, which he christens the ‘grammatical fiction’. This other ‘voice’ only speaks very briefly and at unexpected moments (usually accompanied by an attack of toothache, or Rubashov’s nervous habit of wiping his pince-nez) and remains silent when interrogated. The ‘grammatical fiction’ is the ‘I’ which communism denied; it is Rubashov’s conscience. His humanity. Interestingly, the things that induce the grammatical fiction to the surface are the same sorts of things that act as hooks to drag up buried memories in Austerlitz (see blog post, Memory Rooms), namely, memories of small seemingly insignificant details of past experiences. “[The grammatical fiction’s] mental sphere seemed to be composed of such various and disconnected parts as the folded hands of the Pieta, little Loewy’s cats, the tune of the song with the refrain of ‘come to dust’, or a particular sentence which Arlova had once spoken on a particular occasion” (p.91).

All of these fragmentary memories are the tips of icebergs; the icebergs being a series of betrayals in which Rubashov sacrificed the lives of individuals for the sake of the Party. In Rubashov’s case, the memories are not deeply buried in the past, as in Austerlitz’s, but what is buried is the sense of any guilt or compassion attached to them. Correspondingly, the ‘memory-hooks’ are more transparent in meaning than in Austerlitz’s case and come to the fore without the needing to be re-encountered. All that is in fact needed is for the thing which buried them in the first place, namely the amoral ‘logic’ of the communist mind, to be stripped away by incarceration and the proximity of death. Austerlitz’s memories were laid down in early childhood and attach themselves more to inanimate objects and details of the physical surroundings. Rubashov’s memory-hooks take on a more symbolic character (the sorrow of the Pieta drawing; the cats which were sacrificed for their skins; the song with it’s allusion to death), because Rubashov really knows what it is that he has been repressing. It is this Rubashov that is the grammatical fiction.


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