Koestler: Insider who walked away
Darshan Singh Maini

Arthur KoestlerTHE position of Arthur Koestler, "a naturalised British Citizen of uncertain and mixed racial origin," to use his own words, is unique in so far as the political novel in England is concerned. The fact that he has had to express himself in a foreign language, which incidentally he has mastered as few foreigners, makes him unique among the political novelists. What he represents in English letters is the typical phenomenon of the modern European emigre writer in search of a new equation in life.

Apropos of his works in English, Koestler himself remarks in the preface to a new edition of Dialogue with Death. "All my works prior to 1940 were written in German, after that in English." The Gladiators and Darkness at Noon initially appeared as translations, though Woodcock refers to The Gladiators "as Koestler’s first English novel". This may perhaps be due to the fact that Koestler got a break in the English language with this novel, and since then he had a long time to revive and approve the earlier translations. At any rate, all his novels constitute a compact body of work, they had to be studied together in a chronological order.

It is thus appropriate to include Koestler in the stream of English political fiction, for as it is, no other writer except perhaps Orwell has so powerfully affected the minds of younger generations on the subject of totalitarianism, particularly of the Left, as he has done. Also, Koestler has among others, given a new look to the contemporary political novel in England. Its course might well have been different without the impact of his powerful mind.

Darkness at NoonThis is perhaps natural, for no English novelist in recent years has been so passionately involved in the dust and din of politics as Koestler. He is, indeed a typical political "insider", an example of the engaged writer of the times. However, it is highly probable that what for the peculiar circumstances of his life which brought him to the shores of England towards the end of the thirties of the 20th century, he might never have been a novelist, much less a political novelist.

The story of Koestler’s life and political career is told in several autobiographical volumes such as Dialogue with Death, Scum of the Earth, Arrow in the Blue, The God That Failed (in collaboration with 5 other ex-communists). In several respects, this story is a typical case history of a Central European ex-communist, only Koestler has dramatised it in an emotional and coloured idiom. He has a penchant for heroics, a weakness not confined to his political or autobiographical works only.

It was, however, his contact with Marxism which cleared the fog from his mind, and enabled him to see things in a dialectical rather than mechanistic fashion. Everything after that fell into its right place. His place was in the Communist Party the only political force in Germany capable of resisting the Nazis.

From 1932 to the spring of 1938, he was a card-carrying member of the Party, taking part in publishing activities, cell meetings and even street fights. During this period, he noticed many a time the difference between Communist theory and practice, but he slapped his conscience to sleep in the interests of the cause, or built-up, what he called, "elaborate shock-absorbers, buffers and elastic defence."

In Darkness at Noon (1940) Koestler dropped the allegorical garb of The Gladiators, and presented the problem of totalitarianism in all its nakedness and horror. It is not only his most powerful work where political pamphleteerring has been lifted almost to the condition of art, it also defines the spirit and technique of the modern political novel.

The value of his work, however, lies in his psychological interpretation of politics. There is very little of this in the political novel before the 1930s. Hitherto Freudian psychology had penetrated the traditional themes of fiction, love, crime, human relations — it was left to Koestler to apply it extensively to politics. His passionate imagination involved him deeply in exposing the weaknesses of the Communist theory. Having been an insider for a long time, he had come to realise the hiatus between Communist theory and Communist practice.