Darkness at Noon: Revealed in Translation
by Izak Dimenstein
By the irony of fate, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, the 1940 book that influenced the outcome of the election in France after World War II, became part of an intellectual exercise. In the chapter “Salman” of his memoir Hitch-22, the late Christopher Hitchens mentioned in a footnote that the protagonist Rubashov’s patronymic name “Salmanovitch” was Koestler’s Russian rendition of “Solomonovitch,” definitely a Jewish name. Although Hitchens intended only to embellish his talk about Salman Rushdie, he perhaps unwittingly touched upon the clue to a puzzle. Koestler encrypted a puzzle with regard to Rubashov’s ethnicity. This could not be without reason.
Arthur Koestler, with all his personal complexities and intellectual deviations, was a deep thinker with firsthand knowledge of totalitarianism, which for a short period of time was seen as a curable disease, but now once again shows a potential to return in Eastern Europe, particularly in Russia. The ideological juice is different, but the human container is frightfully similar. The events in Russia and Ukraine may shake off the dust from Koestler’s seminal book.
In the Russian translation of Darkness at Noon, the protagonist of the novel is called “Nikolai Zalmanovich Rubashov.” For a Russian reader, it is absolutely understood that he is a Jew, a high-ranking Bolshevik purged during one of Stalin’s extermination bacchanals. The surname Rubashov is Jewish in Russia, though it sounds like Ivanov, a non-Jewish Russian surname. The name Salman is not used in Russia–only Solomon (as in Solomon Mikhoels) and Zalman (the more frequent derivative). I have known many Zalmans and a few Solomons, but have never heard of any Salmans in Russia.
In The Homeless Mind, David Cesarini’s 1998 biography of Koestler, Cesarani unconditionally claims: “The central character, Nicolas Salmanovich Rubashov, is a Jew.” However, Koestler wrote the following in his 1954 autobiography, The Invisible Writing: “Incidentally, the second name, Salmanovitch (Solomon’s son) made my hero a Jew, but neither did I notice this, nor has any reader ever pointed it out to me.” Koestler mentioned that he “stumbled upon the name ‘Rubashov’ without remembering where it came from” while “rummaging in the lumber –room of memory.” Really? Zalman Shazar, the third president of Israel, was born in the Russian Empire as Shneur Zalman Rubashov. Although Koestler wrote that he had never met the real Mr. Rubashov, his name was well-known during Koestler’s years in Palestine. He was the editor of the Palestine Labor Party’s daily paper Davar and a Histadrut official. Koestler definitely could have heard of, known, or even met the German Jew Salman Schocken, co-owner of a department store chain in Germany, founder of the Schocken Verlag publishing house, and future owner of the daily Haaretz.
Would it not be appropriate to assume that Koestler intentionally intended to blur Rubashov’s ethnicity? It is doubtful that the correct name could have been misspelled while translating into English from the original German variant. Koestler had many opportunities to fix the error, but he left the name intact.
The novel reads like a philosophical work in the mold of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The psychological depth, a blend of Dostoevsky and Freud, attracts the reader much more than the portrayals of Stalin’s 1936-1938 Moscow show trials, which are now remote history.
But the events in the Soviet Union were the triggers of Koestler’s disillusionment with Communist Party practices. At the end of 1938, he left the German Communist Party. Observing the disappearances and murders of his comrades and acquaintances (many of them Jews) at orders from Moscow, he had justifiable fears for his safety.
The high-level old Bolshevik guard of Jewish descent was disproportionally well represented in the Communist party and in the Moscow trials of the 1930s. Koestler knew some of them personally, like Karl Radek (a Jew from Poland, Communist International, or Comintern, official, and editor in chief of Izvestia, an official newspaper of the Soviet Union, second in prominence only to Pravda). Actually, these Jews considered themselves internationalists and cosmopolitans. Deracinated Jews in modern terms, they obliterated their ethnicity, replacing it with class. Assuming their Jewish ethnicity as an accident of birth, many of the defendants in the show trials adopted Russian-sounding surnames, like Grigory Zinoviev (born Radomylsky) and Lev Kamenev (born Rozenfeld). However, in answer to the mandatory question about nationality in the personal questionnaire at the Tenth Congress of Soviets, Leon Trotsky (born Bronshtein) wrote Jew.
It is generally accepted that three figures (Nikolai Bukharin, Radek and Trotsky) are the inspirations for the fictional Rubashov. Koestler wrote about Rubashov’s prototypes in The Invisible Writing; however, for Koestler, all of them, besides some encounters with Radek, were personalities he knew only from the press. He visited the Soviet Union as a young German journalist in 1931 and in 1932 traveling in Central Asia, Caucasus, and along the Volga River, residing not in Moscow but mostly in Kharkov (then the capital of Ukraine).
Mikhail Koltsov (born Friedland), the most popular and influential journalist in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, had never been mentioned as one of the possible prototypes for the fictional Rubashov. Koestler met him on number of occasions, but most importantly in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Both were part of the Comintern’s propaganda division, although Koltsov was at a much higher rank. (The word propaganda had a more positive connotation at that time.) Koestler worked for the German branch of Comintern in Spain in the group of legendary propaganda masters Willi Munzenberg and Otto Katz, both German Jews. Koltsov, though officially the editor of Pravda, was commonly believed to be “Stalin’s eyes and ears” and called the “brilliant Russian Jew” by many Popular Front members. Koestler had many opportunities for close communication with Koltsov. In Valencia, he even slept on the floor of Koltsov’s hotel room on occasion. There, Koestler found out from Koltsov about the oncoming Moscow trial of Georgy Pyatakov, Radek, and others. As an absolute supporter of Stalin’s policies, at least in others’ eyes, Koltsov was the embodiment of the novel’s central dilemma in real- life practice: the interaction of the ends and the means with the latter subordinate to the first. His disappearance after 1938 coincided with the time of Koestler’s work on Darkness at Noon. Koltsov confessed to an improbable range of “crimes” charged against him after torture by his interrogators Lev Schwartzman and Leonid Raikhman (both Jews), though he recanted during his 20-minute trial. Koltsov was executed in 1940. Koestler could not know this at the time that he wrote the novel, but the image of an active Jewish Bolshevik, an enthusiastic believer and skeptic, might have added some strokes in the formation of the character Rubashov.
During the Spanish Civil war, Koestler could have met other Soviet advisers like Lev Nikolsky (born Leiba Felbing and also known as Alexander Orlov), the chief of the NKVD stations in Madrid and Valencia, and his deputy, Nahum Eitington, who carried out Stalin’s extermination of part of the Popular Front linked to Trotsky. He was one of the organizers of Trotsky’s murder. The grim reality of the time was that Jews were both perpetrators and victims of Stalin’s crimes. Koestler had an opportunity to digest his immediate impressions in the Seville prison’s solitary cell.
The fictional Rubashov belongs to the world. Does his origin matter now? Although the contemporary reader, especially in the United States, is less sensitive when it comes to ethnicity, literary characters cannot be completely taken out of the environment that formed them. Emily Bovary is a French woman and Anna Karenina a Russian woman, just as Ivan Karamazov is a Russian man. Rubashov is definitely not a Russian in his Jewish multivariate thinking, the ability to slip into someone else’s mental moccasins. He carries Jewish strengths and flaws. Rubashov cannot be anyone but a Jew by the truth of a fictional character that reflects Koestler’s immediate experience at the time of writing the novel.
Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov was a Jew for Koestler, although he did not want to admit it openly or perhaps even to himself. Michael Scammell indicated in his 2009 biography of Koestler, The Literary and Political Odyssey of the Twentieth-Century Skeptic, that Koestler struggled with his Jewish identity until the end of his life. But more than likely, other reasons influenced Koestler’s decision to hide the Rubashov’s ethnicity.
The novel was published in the Soviet Union in 1989. Andrei Kistyakovsky, a human rights activist, later involved with Political Prisoners Relief Fund, started to work on the Russian translation in the middle of the 1970s, when he could not even have imagined publication of the book in the Soviet Union. The translation was smuggled to the West and published in the United States in 1978. A professional translator of English prose and poetry (Faulkner, Catch-22, and Lord of the Rings), Kistyakovsky tried to eliminate some obvious inconsistencies (camels, brandy, cigarettes, etc.) and add details of the realities of Soviet life that were unknown to outsiders. It is an artistic pleasure to read both variants, as they complement each other. The characters are filled with the flesh and blood by emotional richness of the Russian language. The positive logic of the arguments is underlined through clarity of the English syntax. The English translation from original German was written by Daphne Hardy, who was not a professional translator, but Koestler’s mastery of English had only just begun. The Russian translation is in the footsteps of the Russian 19th-century literary figures such as Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy, with adjustments for the Russian language of the first half of the 20th century. The nuances of The Promised Land theme sound like musical variations. Koestler, who was familiar with Russian, evaluated the translation as an “excellent Russian version.”
Kistyakovsky worked on this book in a specific cultural and political environment that determined even the title: Slepashaya Tyama (Blinding Darkness). The different title changed the emphasis of the book by implying that everything that occurred in the 1930s, including the monstrous Moscow trials, was not a temporal eclipse of the sun—the title in the original German variant was Sonnenfinsternis—but would endure for years to come. The unbearable light in the interrogator’s room was a metaphor for permanent torture by blinding generations of Russians, Jews, whoever lived in the Soviet Union, forcing them into the abyss of darkness.
Was Kistyakovsky right in using an obviously Jewish patronymic name? “Nicolas Salmanovitch” would sound very artificial for a reader in Russia. The events of the novel occur in a concrete country, the Soviet Union,” a sixth of the world,” which was precisely defined by one of the Rubashov’s interrogators, Gletkin. Perhaps not by accident, Koestler’s choice for an unusual Russian, actually Jewish, surname for a successful interrogator served to distinguish from the ubiquitous Russian surname Ivanov, the first of Rubashov’s interrogators. (My Jewish grandfather—whose name, Itkin, is similar to Gletkin—was born in the Russian Empire.) “Minorities” (Jews, Latvians, Georgians) were the most faithful participants of the Bolshevik Revolution, including in the repressive institutions of the 30s.
Unfortunately, the novel’s Russian translation was too late in reaching its readers, including Jews who were well represented in the Soviet Union’s intelligentsia. A decade before, George Orwell’s 1984 was the samizdat’s and tamizdat’s (the term for literature published abroad) “bestseller.” Who cared about the torment and agony of the Jewish Bolshevik whose hands by definition were not clean owing to his participation in the bloody regime? Scorpions in the bottle. Rubashov did not generate any sympathy. Detached from people (the “masses”), the “Theory of Relative Maturity” only reflected his inability even to evaluate coherently his real life situation. The fantasy that somebody would read his revelations in the prison cell sounded laughable. When his interrogator, Gletkin, called him “Comrade Rubashov,” he became agitated and ready to serve the Party again with his false self-incriminations. How could these people have been entrusted with the fate of millions with whom they conducted social experiments? For a reader still in the Soviet Union, poisoned by the cynicism of the late Soviet era, the old Bolsheviks who signed confessions of crimes for benefit of Communist Party seemed to be aliens from a different planet. Rubashov appeared to readers to be an arrogant bloodthirsty fool, moreover a Jew.
But this was, of course, with the hindsight of 50 years that had passed since the book had been written. Times were gone when the famous poem “Grenada,” written by Mikhail Svetlov (born Scheinkman) in 1926 (a poetic masterpiece), had been enthusiastically recited by generations of youth brainwashed by the propaganda machine perpetuated by the likes of Rubashov. The poem mourned the death of Red Army soldier from Ukraine who dreamed to fight for peasants in Spain.
Actually, Jews, like most of the Soviet Union’s population, struggled to get food or vodka (the latter because it was rationed at that time). Many Jews contemplated leaving the country, but some, with the help of Communist Party members, grabbed the country’s fortune to become the Russian nouveau riche (“New Russians”) or with some luck, circumstances, or cleverness even variously sized oligarchs. Russian nationalists blamed Jews for the country’s mess. They sought out Jewish names among the Bolsheviks/oppressors. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s GULAG Archipelago meticulously provided them with this material.
Darkness at Noon, perhaps without or even against Koestler’s intention, is also about Jews at the front lines of social life as true believers and hyperactive participants. Revealed in the translation into Russian, Nikolai Zalmanovich Rubashov ought to teach the Jews a lesson. As a Soviet dissident, singer- songwriter Alexander Galich (born Ginsburg) warned, “Jews, do not try on courtier cloths…”
In the initial post-Soviet Union, Jews again became active players. One notorious example would be Boris Berezovsky, one of the people who helped bring Vladimir Putin to power. He died mysteriously in exile a year ago in London. The list of Jewish oligarchs–Abramovichs and Rabinovichs, including the real-life Roman Abramovich and Vadim Rabinovich—is long in Russia, as well as in Ukraine, where the situation is uncertain, but very predictable dangerous events are brewing.
Why did Koestler want to conceal Rubashov’s Jewish origins? We will never know the answer. Maybe he was ashamed. He could see the full extent of the horrors of Bolshevism, and Jews were not passive bystanders at that time.