Dialogue with Death

Arthur Koestler

Read February 2005

The obituaries following Hunter Thompson's recent death discussed his immersive style of journalism. But there is a long history of immersive journalists, and some of the most prominent operated in the early part of the 20th century: not merely witnesses to history, they also tried their best to shape it. Koestler, who seems to have been better than most at getting into the thick of action, was one of the best exponents of this style (if we may call it that!).

This book is Koestler's account of life in a Spanish prison. As the Civil War draws to a close, Koestler chooses to not evacuate from Málaga. His earlier writings have put him in the sights of Franco's subordinates, and Koestler is transferred to a central prison where he remains in constant fear of his death. The book is partly a journal and partly a historical reconstruction of his time in that prison.

The best part of this book is Koestler's exploration of the psychology of the prisoner. His attention to detail, and the terror he describes from both the knocking on the door and the gunshots in the distance in the middle of the night, are compelling in their credibility and chilling in their presence. There are also vignettes, such as his attempts to overcome the boredom and insanity of isolation by deriving, of all things, the basic formulas of analytic geometry. At its best, the book is a study—through the agency of his own mind—a person trying to understand his environment through only limited powers of observation (why, when I call, do they not come closer to my cell windows?). In that, he embodies all human search for self-understanding.

Koestler wrote this book at the height of his partisanship. (Where else, these days, will you read of someone being ``denounced''?) Two decades later, he re-released the book with a preface explaining his own dishonesty in elements of the account—an addition that was undoubtedly a byproduct of his disillusion with the Left. The book itself is left unchanged, however, which is just as well, for its immediacy cannot be surpassed.