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.
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.
Read an excerpt.