One seldom reads of Koestler today, especially as part of Europe’s literary history. And yet he proves himself a worthy novelist here in this early 1943 work. As well as a probing explorer of human psychology. Perhaps it is his subject and theme that seems less pertinent today. His subject is the flight of his hero Peter Slavek from a central European dictatorship in the 1940s. And he says his theme is “the conflict between morality and expediency,” which “I have tried to transpose…into terms of individual psychology.”
From the moment Slavek drops into the sea, from the bowels of a ship in which he has been hiding, and swims ashore to freedom, Koestler has captured the reader’s interest. And it continues as his hero adjusts to a strange city and a set of new, curious faces. He tries to join the military forces of an unknown country, but since its official is Mr. Wilson, one assumes it is the England to which the author himself did flee. But Slavak is told that since the unnamed country he fled is now occupied by the enemy, such permission is not easy to obtain. The official suggests he try the American consulate as a back-up. America is neutral in the war, and may more readily accept him.
The identity of most countries has to be inferred, however. Which leaves one easily confused, as I was, about people’s loyalties. Thus, the country Slovak has fled to is Portugal, but is called Neutralia—a label which should have been too obvious in Koestler’s wartime era, much less today.
Meanwhile, Slavek is taken in by a Dr. Sonia Bolgar, an imposing women, a psychologist, who has turned her home into a meeting place for refugees. One of these refuges is Odette, with whom Slavek soon has an affair. But Odette is independent-minded, one who says, for example, “after all, love-making is rape by mutual consent.” And one day Odette vanishes because her American visa has come through, leaving Slavek distraught.
To complicate his thinking, he knows he also faces many decisions about his own future. Should he continue fighting the forces occupying his own country? Should he flee to England to do so, since it has now said it would give him a visa? Or should he escape to neutral America and Odette? He cannot make a decision, and soon develops a weakness in one leg that incapacitates him.
We are one-third into the novel, and are about to follow the author into probing the psychology of his hero. Dr. Bolgar uses logic to help Slavek face the critical question of the novel, which is how much the torture he endured under his country’s dictatorial regime he brought on himself—as the result of a guilt he feels about a small incident from his childhood.
It is a harrowing session she puts Slavek through in order to reveal this, but it makes sense. Slavek first recalls dreaming how the enemy back home put its dissidents on mysterious death trains. And then tells of the terrible mental and physical torture he himself endured. The explanation, she says, is that he wished to be punished for a childhood sin. And that he still holds within him that sense of guilt. And yet…one senses that this complex realization by Slavek has been programmed somewhat by the author. Do its explanations of his past and its impact on his future fall too neatly into place? This is not to fault its dramatic effectiveness, but rather to raise doubts in retrospect. Do these developments stand the test of being an outcome of the novel’s theme, morality vs. expediency, rather than chosen to illustrate it?
And so Slavek stops being the idealist, like Don Quixote, and becomes the more realistic Sancho. He decides to be practical, and pursue Odette in neutral America. But does he? He endures a lecture on political theory by a representative of his occupied homeland. Or is it the author? And then the decision he reaches is prompted by a dream, just as other dreams have influenced earlier decisions. But his time he wills not focus on reasons for one’s actions, for “reasons do not matter so much. They are the shell around the core; and the core remains untouchable, beyond the reach of cause and effect.” What matters, it seems, are feelings, not reasons. If this “does not provide a logical answer to its central problem,” Koestler has written, “I felt that it provided me with a sort of answer nevertheless, [although] in a novel it could only be hinted at in an indirect way.” Which is the one reservation I have about this novel: its sound reality caters to its message.
The Departure of the title consists of a final chapter in which Slavek acts out, and justifies, his final decision. We do not know his future, but we know that he will be comfortable with it, with the feelings it gives him. And that, even as the ending grows more abstract, the author is comfortable with having explored and illustrated the inner psychology of his hero.
Saul Bellow in The New York Times summed up my reaction to this novel. “Mr. Koestler has given Arrival and Departure the full benefit of his marvelous ability to create a contemporary atmosphere and to make his characters represent the whole of the civilization to which they belong.” That is, he has met the terms of novel writing. He has created characters, scenes, and human psychology that makes a somewhat abstract concept come alive.
But while Bolgar was right to emphasize logic, Bellow says that “faith has its own requirements, despite logic. And quotes Koestler that ‘in these spheres the right thing [has] always to be done for the wrong reasons.’” He adds: “There is no science of moral convictions; that, in effect, is what Koestler is saying. [That] by themselves, our ideals of reason mean very little; they have brought us few benefits and done us great damage.” Bellow then cites Koestler contrasting the abandoned problem of ethical belief in the past with today’s problem of experimental science. And leaves the reader with the hope that “all mankind may join in answering the questions of moral choice which individual men today attack with inadequate means.”
To sum up, Koestler has written a highly effective novel in literary terms, but he has grafted onto it an exploration of a human psychology in which scientific thinking has replaced ethical thinking. Which makes more sense for a European intellectual who has fled his era’s dictators than it does for an author who assumes here the mantle of a novelist. (July, 2018)