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Dark Tangos by Lewis Shiner

In Dark Tangos (Subterranean Press, 2011), Lewis Shiner has written a political thriller about guilt. As everyone with a conscience knows, guilt can have a powerful effect because we generate it internally. It’s our own sense we have done something wrong. We acquire this ability to judge ourselves as we grow up in our culture. We learn how we are expected to behave within the limitations of legal, moral and purely social rules backed up by various types of punishment should we transgress. It should go without saying that long-term absolutes in behaviour are very rare, if not impossible. I suppose someone of a saintly disposition could go through life in a state of moral purity, never doing anything blameworthy. Equally, a sociopath could avoid ever feeling guilt by rejecting all external rules as a limit on his or her behaviour. Most of us live somewhere in the middle ground.

Lewis Shiner emerging from the long grass

Expanding our definition, guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt is the personal acceptance of responsibility. No-one else need be aware of what we have done until we go on to the next stage of remorse, the sense we should do something practical to relieve the emotional distress caused by the guilt. This links guilt with notions of honour and integrity. Shame only comes when those in our community share in the judgement that our behaviour fell below the standards expected. We lose public esteem and can only recover our reputation by showing contrition and accepting punishment in good spirit. This demonstrates the broader principle that the process we call rehabilitation does not work properly unless the wrongdoers accept society’s judgement and want to reform. This is true both for individuals and also for nations. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is regarded by many as a successful attempt by a nation to come to terms with its past. Without openness and transparency, a group of people cannot understand what was done and then set the terms for forgiveness — which includes forgiving themselves, of course. The problem with the South African approach is that it gave amnesty to alleged wrongdoers and thereby denied victims the chance for justice in the criminal or civil courts.

The problem addressed in Dark Tangos is that holding trials does not work any better. During the so-called Dirty War in Argentina, a predominantly right-wing Catholic elite kidnapped, tortured and killed communists and other “dissidents”. This is well-documented as is the practice of taking the babies when they were born during detention. Equally well-documented, but not so well acknowledged inside the US, is the involvement of the CIA in the more general Operation Condor to prevent socialism from taking hold in the southern states of South America. There’s no doubt the US was complicit in the use of death as a form of political repression. Later, in Argentina under a different regime, there were some show trials but the government granted a general amnesty to all military officers who might have participated in the disappearances, and formally pardoned the leaders of the Junta during the relevant time. Although the amnesty laws were repealed in 2005, the people of Argentina have never been allowed a clear view of what happened and there’s little willingness in the successive governments to accept the need to establish guilt or shame those responsible. Consequently, the thousands who “disappeared” are wounds that will not heal in the Argentinian soul.

Dark Tangos assumes the CIA not only provided intelligence to the death squads, but also channelled finance through legitimate US companies trading in South America. This support for right-wing governments benefitted the US politically at a time when the domino theory was still considered relevant. The US corporations who laundered the money also benefitted because they were awarded profitable contracts by the governments for hiding payment to their operatives. In spirit, this book is not unlike The Quiet American by Graham Greene except it deals with the aftermath, rather than the early years, of US support for right-wing repressive regimes.

Rob Cavenaugh is an emotionally vulnerable older man whose marriage has just collapsed. His employer, a multinational US software company, relocates him to their Buenos Aires office which suits him because it gets him away from his wife, and he’s in love with the tango — he’s visited before to learn the dance with his wife. On arrival, he immediately throws himself into the local dance scene and starts taking lessons with a top dancer. Speaking Spanish with reasonable fluency, he’s soon making new friends. We can think of him as being one of those openly friendly guys, naturally gregarious but politically naïve. This essential innocence is soon under threat as he finds himself in love on the rebound with a young Argentinian woman. However, it soon becomes clear she has an agenda and, remarkably, she drops him. Guilt comes in many forms and seducing a man to recruit him into a dangerous activity is high on the list of things not to do. However, he finds himself all too willing to become a human pawn. If nothing else, it shows the power of sex to overwhelm basic rules about self-defence. Once he’s crossed the Rubicon, he’s immediately at risk and, as the number of people involved slowly expands, he finds himself one of the Disappeared. Yes, it still happens when one of the old operatives feels at risk. So before you decide to read this book, decide whether you can stand reading an extended description of torture and its consequences. Some of the passages are quite strong meat.

Lewis Shiner has a slightly dense prose style, including a lot of background information. Perhaps I’m unusual in being familiar with much of it. I suppose the intended American readership might be less well-informed and will benefit from the explanations. If you are going to do it justice, it’s not a quick read. However, I feel that, while being reasonably accurate in attributing guilt to the Argentinians, it underplays the guilt that should be accepted by the US. That said, this is a brave book by an American author in dealing with the uncomfortable truth about the Dirty War and Operation Condor. As a story, it exposes the shades of moral grey that all humans of ordinary courage experience. In this instance, I only found one person’s actions surprising although, in retrospect, it’s consistent with what we have seen and heard. Everyone else nicely lived up, or down, to our reasonable expectations given the set-up. This is a testament to the credibility of the characterisation. Lewis Shiner has also done justice to life in Buenos Aires. Overall, this is an intellectually powerful and socially interesting commentary on what happened in Argentina. I opened by describing it as a political thriller, i.e. it deals with an innocent man who opens Pandora’s Box on an international mess of repression and corruption. What makes this a good example of the genre is that it does include the detail of the politics. Unlike many other authors who prefer more superficial plots with guns blazing and bombs exploding to keep us interested, this is a thinking person’s thriller with attitude. It’s well worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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