Close to three quarters of a century ago—all of 13 years before William Golding’sLord of the Flies came out, just 4 years before George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and just months before Pearl Harbor—Arthur Koestler’s dystopic novel, Darkness at Noon, was published in England. The author would end badly: he’s remembered as the mini-Lamarckian, para-normalist contributor to an Encyclopedia for Sexual Knowledge, and as a vice president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society who took his own life. But it was his difficult early experiences that offered the grist for this book. Koestler spent 4 months in a Seville jail in Franco’s Spain; and he knew a number of Show Trial victims in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Besides, he knew something about bees.
The whole of Darkness at Noon takes place in prison: on the floor of isolation cell No. 404, 6-1/2 steps square; across from the pile of documents on the examiners’ desks, and under the strong light bulbs in their examination rooms; down the badly lit spiral staircase that takes prisoners down to the depths, where Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov is shot in the back of his neck. “In all the white-washed cells of this honeycomb in concrete,” 2000 men live, and some die, “walled into the cells of this bee-hive.”