Friday, March 18, 2011

Arthur Koestler's Dialogue with Death

Usually when I recommend that my employer, the University of Chicago Press, take a look at an out-of-print book for possible reprinting, it’s a book I’ve already fallen for; that was the case with Richard Stark’s Parker novels, Anthony Powell’s The Fisher King, and Francois Sagan’s A Certain Smile (coming this fall!).

But this spring Chicago published a book at my suggestion that I hadn’t even read: Arthur Koestler’s Dialogue with Death: The Journal of a Prisoner of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War (1946). All I knew about it when I recommended it was what Louis Menand had written in a New Yorker article on Koestler:
One of Koestler’s finest books, for example, is the account of his Spanish imprisonment, Dialogue with Death published in England in 1942. The book is not really about politics. Koestler despised the Fascists, but he saw little to respect in the Republicans, either. The book is about what it is like to face one’s imminent execution—it was admired by Sartre, among others, as a lucid statement of the existentialist situation—and, in this respect, it is a stranger and stronger book than Darkness at Noon.

Koestler’s Spanish experiences obviously informed Darkness at Noon, but the novel has more to do with the fatal self-deceptions of Communist dialectics than it does with the sheer apprehension of death. And Darkness at Noon is a roman a these, in which every character is a type—the disillusioned old revolutionary, the soulless apparatchik, the doomed idealist. Dialogue with Death is just a report on a series of mostly horrible events, and the author is under no obligation to organize them, or even to make sense of them.
Now that the book has arrived (with a new introduction by Menand), I’m pleased to see that it’s every bit as good as he said. I started it last night and read until late, unable to convince myself to put the book down.

Koestler’s writing is direct and clear, reminiscent at times of Orwell’s famous writing on the same war; yet at the same time, because this is a book about one man’s experience more than it’s a book about the war, it’s shot through with self-reflection and attention to the internal processes triggered by danger and imprisonment. Here, for example, is Koestler’s account of the day that followed the decision to kill himself that evening with a shard of glass he’d discovered in his cell:
The fact that I had made a decision which I regarded as final filled me with utter contentment. I became really cheerful, and the barometer rose at an astonishing rate. I called to memory, just by way of a test, the scene when the bear [a fellow prisoner] was led away, and the scenes in the police station. They now left me completely cold. I thought of friends and relatives, and found that I was not in the least bit moved. I was very proud of this Olympian frame of mind, and, true to the penny novelette, thought: nothing has power to move him who has done with life.

It was not until much later, in Seville, when I and a fellow prisoner, also condemned to death, were discussing the various forms of fear, that I understood the secret of this magic metamorphosis: namely, that by coming to a sham decision to take my life I had simply snatched for myself twelve untroubled hours. My state of Olympian calm was not, as I thought, the result of the decision itself, but of my having set a time limit of twelve hours. Up till now I had counted hourly on hearing the oily voice [of the executioner] calling out my name; now, by a wishful inference, I took it for granted that the twelve hours’ respite which I had given myself would be respected by the outside world. This was why I was so cheerful.
The penny novelettes make an appearance elsewhere as well:
I had a feeling that my knees were nothing but flabby jelly. “The condemned man walked with an uncertain gait.” All condemned men walk with an uncertain gait. Damn those penny novelettes.
Yet another time when Koestler thinks death is imminent, his fears are allayed by the fact that the guards handcuff him—handcuffs being in such short supply, and so difficult to remove from the dead, that only string is used to bind the condemned. These are the small lessons taught by prison life, and Koestler conveys them, one painful one after another.

His account of the days before his capture, when he waiting in Malaga for the Nationalist troops to take the city, is just as striking as the prison journal. Here he writes of the entry of conquering troops into the surrendered city:
As they pass by the house they salute us, and the household staff, who only yesterday assiduously raised their clenched fists, now with equal Spanish effusiveness, raise their arms in the Fascist salute. They seem perfectly at ease, but since they look upon us foreigners as half imbecile, the gardener advises Sir Peter and me to change our demeanour, too, “because we have a new Government now.”
Then there’s this, from the pitiful pretense of defense mounted by the city, a scene whose telling calls to mind the resignation found in Kafka:
There, up above on the Devil’s Rock, squats Captain Pizarro, gazing down at the road below to see if the rebels are coming. Beside him are a telephone and a steel wire. When the rebels come Pizarro is to telephone down to the post below. But as he is convinced that the telephone will fail to function at the critical moment, he has provided himself with the wire, which runs eight hundred yards to headquarters below; when he gives it a tug, a bell rings. Sometimes a bird comes and pecks at the wire, and then the alarm is sounded below.
Dialogue with Death makes a perfect companion to Homage to Catalonia: whereas the overriding impression given by Orwell’s book is one of futility—part of it brought on by the ridiculous infighting of the Spanish Left, part by the cruel absurdity of war itself—Koestler’s book captures, without varnishing the story, some of the drama and intensity of the war, and even of very basic personal peril, so that we can begin to understand just what it was that drew so many idealistic young people to want to go to Spain to fight and die. The books work well together because we shouldn't be seduced by such visions, but we should never forget that people throughout history have been, and probably will continue to be.


  1. Oh, so nice! I've been trying to gather books and authors mentioned in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands such as Koestler, Vasily Grossman, and several others. This is definitely added to my list to read this year. That it makes a good companion to Orwell's Homage makes me look forward to it even more. Thanks!

  2. Anonymous3:41 AM

    I read Dialogue with Death about a year ago and was blown away by it. Apart from the detail and political intrigue, Koestler's meditation on time while in his cell (in chapter 13 - I have a 1966 Hutchinson & Co edition) is brilliant. There is something frighteningly familiar about his observation that although time in his cell dragged interminably, it would then vanish with shocking speed - days, weeks and months disappearing into a void. This paradox - that the repetition and monotony both slowed time but also rendered it unmemorable and therefore lost '...passing swiftest of all in the memory', is beautifully drawn by Koestler. In respect to his ideas about time, it's worthwhile following up his book with the (great) book he refers to several times, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.