N. S. Rubashov and his pince nez first entered my life when I was in high school. At the time, I had no idea what a powerful influence his story would have on my life, my thoughts, and my writing. What is so powerful about this novel?
It’s not in the prose style. Koestler’s prose tends towards dense thickets of words in parched soil. Thick and dry. There is a formality to the tone that makes the novel like an official document. When Koestler describes prisoners tapping on pipes or walls to communicate with each other, it’s the official story. Yes, this really happened. In fact, Koestler based Rubashov on his own experiences and on a combination of people in his life, friends, who had been arrested in the USSR and put through what Rubashov experiences with one important difference. Koestler’s friends lived to tell him what happened to them.
My recent reading of this book was done in spurts, but that didn’t detract from the flow of the story for me. Not much happens, really. The story opens with Rubashov having just arrived in his prison cell. Koestler takes the reader into his mind to process with Rubashov his surroundings and what he thinks about them and how he landed in prison. The reader stays in Rubashov’s mind, with only two or three breaks, for the duration of the novel.
Koestler’s achievement is in peeling away the layers of Rubashov’s thought processes as he examines his belief system. It is his belief in the Revolution, i.e. the Revolution as it was originally conceived not the present version led by No. 1, that has landed him in that prison cell. Koestler reveals the fragility of the human perception of truth and reality through Rubashov and his confrontations with Ivanov and Gletkin. How they manipulate his thinking is a masterful example of thought control like George Orwell wrote of in 1984. Koestler’s concerns are political. But this thought control can also apply in social situations, and even within a family. So we have domestic abuse and cults.
And it’s possible for an Adolf Hitler to gain power in Germany with a message of Aryan power. It was possible for Lenin to gain power through revolution in Russia with a message of the power of the proletariat. In either case, the leader says one thing while in effect doing the opposite. Did the proletariat ever really have any power in the USSR? No. The power was in the Communist Party, in the leaders. But the leaders are careful to “educate” the people about the goals of the Party as they relate to them, the proletariat, to create the illusion that the people have more power than they do.
Toward the end of Rubashov’s story, Koestler describes his thoughts, his reaction to his own behavior and words at his show trial, concluding:
It was a mistake in the system; perhaps it lay in the precept which until now he had held to be uncontestable, in whose name he had sacrificed others and was himself being sacrificed: in the precept that the end justifies the means.
“The end justifies the means.” This is the core belief of communism, and of any dictatorship worth its salt, whether that dictatorship is within a family or a country. It is the core of Rubashov’s story as he remembers, throughout the book, situations and people from his past. In each memory, he acts in accordance with this core belief. So how can he fault the current regime for being true to its core belief?
For me, the power of this novel comes from the horror in the realization that thoughts can be manipulated, experience controlled, reality created to suit whoever is in power; and in the seductiveness of the core belief that the end justifies the means. We are as vulnerable now as during the 1930’s when Koestler set his novel….