The Big Idea: Lewis Shiner

There are things that are easy to say or do or believe in some parts of the world, but not in others, as Lewis Shiner learned when he set his newest novel, Dark Tangos, in the violence-scarred country of Argentina. As a result, the writing of the novel took the author down storytelling paths he had worked to avoid before. What was the result for this work? Shiner lays it out for you now.

LEWIS SHINER:

Back in 1991, I edited an anthology called When the Music’s Over. The only condition I placed on my contributors was that they had to resolve the central conflict of the story without using violence. It was a standard I held myself to, starting with my novel Deserted Cities of the Heart (1988) and going right up to Black & White (2008). Once I started to write about Argentina, however, I saw that I was going to have to rethink my position.

The late 1970s in Argentina saw state-sponsored terrorism taken to a level never seen before, a so-called Dirty War where tens of thousands of peaceful, law-abiding citizens were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. In the aftermath, only a few of those responsible were ever convicted, and then only to be pardoned a few years later. Many of them are still in positions of power in the police, the army, and the government.

So what do you do when institutional justice is not available to you?

I first started to kick these ideas around in Black & White, where a member of a radical black organization says, “King was good at working the media, but the truth is, it was the black people with guns and baseball bats and rocks got us what little we got. Without that fist behind King’s glove, wouldn’t have been anything at all.”

After brooding about that for a while, I wrote a short story called “The Death of Che Guevara“, in which Che survives to bring a socialist revolution to Argentina, leading indirectly to Eugene McCarthy being elected in the US in 1972. When Che begins to flirt with pacifism, one of his lieutenants says, “Where is Ghandi now? Dead. King? Dead. King’s Civil Rights Movement? Dead. John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Gene McCarthy? Dead, dead, dead….When you put violence against non-violence, violence always wins.”

In Dark Tangos, my new novel, a 50-ish computer programmer accepts a forced relocation to his company’s Buenos Aires office in 2006, where he goes by Beto, the Spanish version of his nickname. His infatuation with a young woman drops him smack in the middle of a new series Dirty War trials that started that year, dragging the never-forgotten ugliness back into the headlines.

His closest friend at work is a Sikh named Bahadur, in exile from his native India. At one point Bahadur attempts to explain the difference between being a pacifist and being passive: “Our scripture…tells us to live in peace with one another. It tells us to work honestly and share the fruits of our labors….Above all, it teaches equality, toleration, and justice. Where there is injustice, we are required to take a stand.” He shows Beto the kirpan, the miniature sword that all Sikhs are required to carry. “We are charged to actively prevent violence to those who cannot defend themselves and the kirpan is a reminder of that.”

Beto also comes to know one of the montoneros, a survivor of the revolutionary movement that the government used as an excuse for the Dirty War. (In fact, the montoneros had been effectively wiped out before the 1976 coup.)  This man, who calls himself Mateo, is as obsessed with justice as Bahadur. As Mateo contemplates kidnapping one of the Dirty War henchmen who has escaped government prosecution, he worries about the morality of his small group putting the man on trial: “There are so few of us. When the montoneros passed judgment on someone, it had authority. When you have so few, it’s more like revenge than justice.” When Beto asks him the difference, Mateo, who is living under a death sentence himself, isn’t sure. “When the government condemns a man to death, is that vengeance too? When it’s a man like me?”

The questions of justice cease to be academic when Beto gets a death sentence of his own, with no recourse to the law or the US embassy or the New York Times.

There’s a certain kind of suspense novel–Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle comes to mind–whose entire storyline consists of the author driving a gentle, trusting person to murder.  Dark Tangos is not that sort of book. My intent was to ask more difficult questions.

If violence is ever justified, and I believe it is, where do you draw the line? Who gets to draw it? How do you tell justice from revenge? For Bahadur, the answer is simple: “I would chant the names of God and that would free me from attachment to anger or ego or my own personal desires. When I was done, I would see clearly what I had to do.” For Mateo, the answer is having a big enough jury to sit in judgment. For Beto it’s not that simple.

Dark Tangos is a suspense novel, and I have no intention of giving away its ending.  But I will say this much:

I have never killed anyone. I have friends who have. I have been physically injured by other people. I have studied and discussed and thought hard about violence, and I have come to some conclusions.

I think one of the ways this country, and much of this world, has gone wrong is in not talking about the effect that violence has on individuals, the victims and the perpetrators alike. If violence must be done to achieve justice, it can only be done at a terrible cost, a cost we have numbed ourselves to over the centuries.

My hope is that Dark Tangos will start to take some of that numbness away.

—-

Dark Tangos: Amazon|Subterranean Press

Read an excerpt.

28 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Lewis Shiner

  1. While the novel itself sounds very interesting, I have one teensy little nitpick about the title–if it’s supposed to be pronounced like tango, the dance, its plural should be “tangoes”, not “tangos”. “Tangos” makes me think it should be pronounced “tangoss”.

    What can I say, I have a degree in English. Had to get that out of my system.

    :-)

  2. “Where is Ghandi now? Dead.”

    This is a red herring. If the question is whether pacifism or violence has moral justification, then Ghandi being alive or dead is irrelevant to whether his actions were moral or not.

    When A goes to war against B, A is effectively saying that B is going to bear some of the cost of what A wants B to do. This might be a moral choice or it might not depending on how you load the scales to measure the total cost of war versus no-war.

    pacifism, at its heart, says that no one wil bear the cost of our actions but us.

    Whether pacifism in a particular situation wil succeed or not is still a question that would need to be sorted out based on the particulars. but no one can call pacifism immoral. (except people trying to justify violence instead.)

  3. Greg? That whooshing sound over your head was the point being made… :)

    Interesting philosophical point and an interesting triumvirate of characters. One more for the list…

  4. rickg, *my* point was that pacifism has a legitimate morality. As to whether that was the point Shiner was trying to make, it seemed missing. of the triumvarate of character you admire, two, Bahadur and Mateo, find justification for violence. the third, Beto, only says ‘its not that simple’. If Beto is a pacifist, why not just say so?

    Given Shiner starts out writing stories that dont use violence to resolve their conflict and ends up saying he had to ‘rethink’ his position, and given his examples from his writings after that ‘rethinking’ dismiss pacifism (Ghandi is dead. the only reason King was successful was because of the ‘fists behind King’s glove’.) I certainly dont think there is any strong defense of pacifism *whooshing* over my head in the above post that I missed.

  5. “I think one of the ways this country, and much of this world, has gone wrong is in not talking about the effect that violence has on individuals, the victims and the perpetrators alike.”

    Interestingly, you get a lot about this in the German army, and a fair amount in German civil society in general.

  6. @Greg: The part that you’re missing is the part where the article asks the question of whether violence is ever justified. That’s a question that’s only relevant when your core principle is pacifism is the right thing. If you don’t fundamentally believe pacifism is correct, then asking whether violence is ever justified has no meaning. There doesn’t need to be a defense of pacifism for it to lie at the very heart of the matter under discussion.

    Also, it very much is relevant where the pacifist ends up. It is not moral to commit people to their deaths with no hope of change. In a sufficiently brutal society, pacifism may in fact cease to be a moral choice. To not understand that is to miss something fundamental in what the article is discussing.

  7. asking ‘is violence ever justified?’ does not in any way imply that pacifism itself has been justified. Shiner says he started from a point of pacifism, but never actually comes to a *reason* why he starts there.

    and the only argument he provides in the above excerpt (and in the sample chapter in the link) that is an argument *against* pacifism, shifts the argument from moral justification to survivability. Ghandi is dead, therefore… what? pacifism isnt justified?

    he doesnt explain *how* he started out supporting pacifism. and he doesnt provide moral arguments as to how he moved away from it. ‘its complicated’ is not an explanation and is not a moral justification.

    all the characters point to the exact same endpoint Shiner appears to personally hold (some violence is justified), but no where does any character in the above excerpts actually make a vigorous defense of pacifism. Ghandi is dead, is not an argument of morality. it is an argument of practicalities. the saying goes ‘history is written by the victors’, which is not the same as ‘morality is defined by the survivors’.

    What I gather from the above isnt that Shiners argument for morality shifted from pacifism to some level of violence, but that Shiner shifted from a moral view to a ‘survivor’ view. or his definition of morality shifted from some absolute sense of right and wrong to something substantially more relativistic and/or fuzzy.

  8. On rereading the original post again, I se my last comment made a fundamental error. Shiner never gives moral *justification* for pacifism and on top of that, his characters argue that pacifism is a farce. Martin Luther King Jr only worked the media. The *truth* according to Shiners character, is the only reason civil right made what little progress it made was because King’s nonviolence came with the implicit and actual threat of violence from others.

    That is an insult to nonviolent resistence made by King and all his followers.

    which I wouldnt have a problem with if some real Moral defense of nonviolence were also included. but none is. At most, Shiner makes the argument ‘I USED to support nonviolent resistance, but now I support some violence’. because nonviolent movements only worked because they had the threat of violence behind them?

    I am no pacifist, but I look at the courage and determination and the difference that nonviolent movements made like King and Ghandi made and have nothing but the utmost respect for them. I look at them in awe. I find their moral standing to be clear and undeniable.

    I can also see the morality in the use of force in some settings, so like I said, I am no pacifist.

    but to suggest King succeeded only because there was a threat of violence if he failed, is jaw droppingly insulting and belittling to the hard work and courage of the nonviolent civil rights movement. to suggest that the absolute moral standing of nonviolence is an illusion because, for example, Ghandi is dead, swaps morality for self interest.

    The morality of Christ does not crumble because he was crucified by the Romans.

    the morality of the actions of King and Ghandi does not crumble because they died.

    certainly one can argue that a nonviolent resiatance would not succeed in a country where the media is controlled by the state, and the state thinks nothing of mass murdering its opposition.

    but that doesnt lessen the morality of nonviolence. it doesnt mean nonviolence onky works because there is threat of violence behind it. it doesnt mean it failed because its leaders were murdered.

    That has shifted the topic from morality to strategy. sun tzu said if you are outnumbered a hindred to one, then hide and use hit and run tactics. he also said that a war can only be waged so long as it has the support of the people behind it.

    I think were we to bring sun tsu to today, he would say if you are outnumbered a million to one and have some light, then use nonviolent resistence to show the violence of the state and rob the state of the support of the people.

    it becomes a strategy to choose depending on the circumstances, the lay of the land, who has the high ground, and so on.

    but strategy is not morality. and if the question of whether violence is *justified* is a moral question, then nonviolence is absolutely moral, and violence might sometimes be moral.

    justifying violence by belittling nonviolence changes the meaning of ‘justified’ from a moral and *just* idea to a tactical questiion. should I use tanks or bombers?

  9. Greg – aside from what @13 notes, you’re completely and utterly missing the point of the various statements you cite. From the post it seems to me that Shiner’s characters are variously making the point that while non-violence can be powerful and even admirable, it’s easy to silence someone. The issue is then… when is violence OK if it ever is? is that line an absolute or dependent on the situation? Etc.

    This is a suspense novel that examines the idea… not a philosophical treatise. And to reinforce it, you’re doing something really really objectionable by ascribing to the author various points made by the characters in a novel. Don’t do that.

  10. Mr. Scalzi: There’s “reasonable to assume”, and there’s “did it actually get done”. I’ve read professionally produced mass market paperbacks distributed by major publishing houses which have had “you’re/your”, “to/too/two”, “it’s/its” etc errors sprinkled throughout. As a general statement, I would agree with you that it’s reasonable to assume a professional publishing house would know what they’re doing…but it doesn’t always happen.

    :-)

  11. Pacifism is not, and never really could be, a reasoned position. Pure pacifism defies our most primal instinct, survival. Pacifism is an article of faith. And, contrary to some, I believe truly intelligent and educated people can have fundamental faith in certain concepts. Pacifism is one.
    The biggest problem with pacifism as a tactic is that it assumes that your opponent shares most of your principles. This, combined with graphic TV views of violence by southern violence against non-violent protestors, was the main reason the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. was successful. Having powerful and dedicated leadership was the other key to its success.

    I do know because I was there.

  12. Sam@13: Greg, please don’t make the category error of assuming that what a character says in a book reflects what the author believes.

    I cited what the characters say because Shiner never says anything about pacifism and nonviolent resistence himself, other than “It (pacifism) was a standard I held myself to” but then “Once I started to write about Argentina, however, I saw that I was going to have to rethink my position”.

    Second of all, Shiner himself is providing those quotes from his own works as reflecting how his own views were changing over time.

    Jeebus.

    rickg@14: aside from what @13 notes

    Oh fer petes sake, Shiner himself says he writings match his views. Gawds.

    It was a standard I held myself to, starting with my novel Deserted Cities of the Heart (1988) and going right up to Black & White (2008). Once I started to write about Argentina, however, I saw that I was going to have to rethink my position.

    He held himself to the standard of nonviolent solutions and his novels reflected that position.

    Then, when he started writign about Argentina, he says he had to rethink his position.

    So, Shiner himself is saying HIS WRITING is matching in some way or another HIS VIEWS.

    you’re completely and utterly missing the point of the various statements you cite. From the post it seems to me that Shiner’s characters are variously making the point that while non-violence can be powerful and even admirable, it’s easy to silence someone.

    Where exactly do you see *any* of Shiner’s words (his literal words, not your reinterpretation) say that “non-violence can be powerful and even admirable”. “It was a standard he held himself to” is the closest he ever gets of actually directly endorsing nonviolence. No where in the above post does he say nonviolence is powerful. No where does he say he admired any of the people who used nonviolence to achieve great things.

    In the first paragraph, he said it was a “standard” he held himself to and it was a “position” he held, but by the end of that paragraph he says he had to rethink that position. Nothing after that paragraph even remotely describes non-violent resistence as “powerful” or “admirable”.

    Nothing.

    And some of the things his characters say belittle real, actual, powerful nonviolence in history.

    “King was good at working the media, but the truth is, it was the black people with guns and baseball bats and rocks got us what little we got. Without that fist behind King’s glove, wouldn’t have been anything at all.”

    There is absolutely nothing in that quote that anyone can extract as saying King’s nonviolent resistence was powerful or admirable. In fact, it says the exact opposite. And if the words of Shiner’s character is different from Shiner himself, then Shiner never actually says that anywhere in the post.

  13. Gandhi would be 141 years old at this moment, so yes, he’s dead. He managed quite a bit with pacifism before he died.

  14. Greg, having read several of Shiner’s novels, many of his short stories and essays, and written him many times in the past year and interviewed him at length, I quite confidently assert that his views on violence and humanity do not boil down to a (violent) character’s quote on a fist behind MLK. In that book, the protagonist recoils from the violence. And Jeebus doesn’t have much to do with it, either.

    But I agree about the preview button.

  15. @Greg: Any author is eventually talking to some version of him or herself. In this case, the author starts at pacifism and has to explain the viewpoint to a person coming from that background. If the book is talking to pacifists about when and why and how much violence can be justified, it should at least work as an argument to pacifists about those ideas. But there’s no requirement that the precise position be made to every reader. Without having read the book, I would expect it to come across as slightly naive to those of us who are starting from something other than a pacifist background, but that’s no sin. A reasoned argument about justified violence can be valuable to all comers without taking on the larger question of whether pacifism is the right starting point.

  16. Greg, having read several of Shiner’s novels, many of his short stories and essays, and written him many times in the past year and interviewed him at length, I quite confidently assert that his views on violence

    Having just the post above and the sample chapter, his views are pretty well camoflaged.

    And I get, as rickg says, that this is a suspense novel, not a philosophcal treatise, but the first paragraph makes pretty clear that non-violence was a personal belief, not just a plot device, and the post ends with “I have studied and discussed and thought hard about violence, and I have come to some conclusions”, and a lot in between seems to say that the whole point of not only this novel but several other novels is whether violence is ever moral, one might even say that it is the big idea of the novels.

    And yet, by the end, not only is nonviolence NOT given an absolute moral position, it is deemed insufficient and several quotes are expended that cast doubt on the entire legitimacy of nonviolence, with no quotes and no personal opinions provided that would say “these are not my views” or an explanation of that defends the morality of nonviolence.

    It might have come out in his interviews, it might be in his other novels, it might even be in this novel, but it isn’t in the post at the top and it isn’t in the sample chapter. And given the “I have studied and discussed and thought hard about violence, and I have come to some conclusions” comment, given that he’s seems to be saying that the whole big idea behind the story seems to be finding a morality for force, I was expecting slightly more detail about morality of force and slightly more clarity about whether he believed nonviolence is moral or not.

  17. Greg @9, belatedly, as I am in the Caucasus just now: As you can imagine, leaders of West Germany’s postwar army spent no small amount of time grappling with the enormity of the Third Reich’s crimes and the role of the armed forces in both enabling these crimes and in committing them. (I’m simplifying considerably, as there was of course both fierce debate and denial.) They did not abjure violence, but they did give considerable thought to the role of an army in a democracy, the role of that democracy within the family of nations, and the role of citizens in a democracy’s army, particularly making the role of soldier subordinate to that of citizen.

    The approach that they came up with is known as Innere Führung, which translates roughly as “inner leadership” and slightly less roughly as “self-direction.” The core of the idea is that when citizens put on a uniform, they remain citizens and the claim that their military service puts on them is not unlimited. They are prepared to take on the harm to themselves that fighting may entail; precisely for that reason (among others) there are limits to what they can be compelled to do, and there are things that no officer can order a subordinate to do, or even imply that a subordinate ought to do. The training in Innere Führung is stronger for officers, and it has built up a military culture that emphasizes citizenship.

    Because the West German draft called up a larger share of (male) citizens than in most other Western democracies, experience with Innere Führung was (and to a lesser extent is) widespread in the population, with an effect on civil society. Then there was the question of what the parents/grandparents did during the war. To be sure, many (most?) families preferred silence or a sanitized version, but one of the signal achievements of the ’68 generation in Germany is to have broken the societal silence about what people did during the years from 1933 to 1945 and to have started a public debate that hasn’t stopped since. By and large, it’s impossible to be a university-educated German and not have contended with what violence does to individuals, both victims and perpetrators; it’s unlikely even to have completed secondary schooling without having grappled with those issues. Not everyone comes to similar conclusions, of course, but the questions themselves are almost inescapable.

  18. There are some great thoughts in this description and the book sounds like a tremendous read. Questions like these fascinate me. I think I may just have to pick this one up.

  19. Doug, wow, I could imagine WW2 was at the heart of it, but I had no idea the whole culture had adopted a limited morality of war ethic. That’s pretty amazing.

  20. Glad to help out, Greg. Though of course (1) I am simplifying, and (2) it doesn’t prevent hard choices from coming along. For instance, NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999. On the one hand, a hard-won consensus that Germany should only ever fight defensively. On the other, the clear view that keeping that position would mean standing idly by during mass expulsions and massacres in Europe. (On top of several years of inaction during the other wars of Yugoslav succession.)

  21. “I think one of the ways this country, and much of this world, has gone wrong is in not talking about the effect that violence has on individuals, the victims and the perpetrators alike. If violence must be done to achieve justice, it can only be done at a terrible cost, a cost we have numbed ourselves to over the centuries.”

    This strikes a resonant chord with me, and probably several others. Especially having experienced violence first hand. I can readily agree that we as a society have not addressed the effects of violence on individuals, whether those who have suffered violence, or those who have been asked to do it in the name of justice. There is a sizable and growing movement to do just that. Most of the recent research, unsurprisingly, has been done with police officers and military members. For those who are interested, I recommend Dr. Grossman’s book On Combat.

    http://www.amazon.com/Combat-Psychology-Physiology-Deadly-Conflict/dp/0964920514

    While this may not contribute to the debate over non-violence, it certainly gives support to the notion that violence, whether justified or not, is detrimental to all involved.

    After returning from Afghanistan a few years ago, several of my unit suffered from various maladies related to stress and combat. I can say that for me, at least, this work, along with some of the other research being done, helped me to deal with the PTSD. Not overcome it, mind you. One of the points made by Dr. Grossman is that a person is indelibly changed by exposure to or participation in violence. Something that Doug may be able to expound on.

    It will be interesting to see if Mr. Shiner’s characters have similar experiences. And I wholeheartedly agree that this is a region of study that has come much later than it should have.

  22. Buried here at the bottom of all these diatribes…

    _Dark Tangos_ is probably Lew’s best work to date. Unputdownable. Highly recommended.

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