Some books carve themselves immediately and irrevocably into the minds of their readers. I must have been no more than 16 or 17 years old when I first read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Knowing little about the Russian Revolution, and the lies, torture and mass-murder that the leadership of Josef Stalin had brought in its train, I was instantly converted into a fierce disbeliever in every benign claim about life in the Soviet Union which was made in those days by the Communists and their innumerable dupes and fellow-travellers in the West.
Darkness at Noon is of course a novel, not a historical treatise, and it was precisely the sardonic intimacy of the book, together with the vein of outrage and despair running through it – a combination of effects that only a work of fiction could carry off – which rendered it so irresistible to me. At the time I did not know the book had enjoyed much more than a succès d’estime when it first appeared in English, about a year after the outbreak of the Second World War. Though supplies of paper were severely rationed then, it was reprinted over and over again during the war, at a time when the contribution made by the Russians to the destruction of Hitler’s empire in Europe was generating, in Britain and elsewhere, an unprecedented degree of sympathy for the Soviet Union. Yet here was a relatively little-known German-Hungarian writer – a refugee, a Jew and a former Communist – who had made his way to safety in England, after various desperate adventures and spells of imprisonment in both Franco’s Spain and a defeated France, and who then proceeded to celebrate his escape from the Nazis by writing a novel that portrayed Britain’s great eastern ally as a loathsome tyranny: as a region of darkness subject to the whims of a paranoiac leader, with a half-starved proletariat at his command and a ruling class kept in submission by his habit of constantly murdering swathes of hi
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