I sometimes wonder if the precarious place that short stories hold in the world of publishing (and reading) is because good stories are inherently threatening. They can cause a lot of trouble in a few pages and knock a reader’s complacency for a serious loop. Good short stories often implicate the reader directly. Consider Alice Munro. For me, part of what makes Munro so powerful is that in story after story she tramples our own conventional morality by exposing us for what we so often are – lying hypocrites – human, complicated, sometimes even kind lying hypocrites – but lying hypocrites nonetheless. We love her for it – even when she is telling us uncomfortable truths about ourselves that we mostly ignore on a day to day basis.
I’ve pledged to use this space as a forum to speak a little about stories that have meant something to me and I intend to do this again today. But will you permit me a brief detour into politics, specifically the politics of torture? This past Sunday Clark Hoyt, Public Editor of the New York Times, spent an entire column discussing which of two adjectives is most appropriate to describe waterboarding in the newspaper. Should we call it ‘harsh’ or ‘brutal’? After much discussion, he decided ‘brutal’ wasn’t out of line. For the record, the Times defines waterboarding as a near-drowning technique that entails “water poured over the mouth and nose to produce a feeling of suffocation.” Both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have described waterboarding as torture. Further, the Administration has acknowledged this form of torture was not only sanctioned by the lawyers in the Bush White House who not only found ways to rationalize it legally, but also that it was carried out in at least two instances.
Obama’s problem now, however, is a tough one. Do we prosecute those men and women (and doctors) who carried this out – torture or whatever we are going to call it? – and the lawyers who gave legal cover – or do we simply chalk this up to a kind of temporary September 11th mentality, promise not to indulge in any of this stuff again and move on? Politically, I know, the later is a sound choice. Obama has enough problems right now. Why litigate the past? I see where he is coming from, as a supporter and as a citizen.
But this reader of short stories wonders. Because stories complicate. Stories make different, more complete demands on the truth. As a reader of short stories I wonder about a more complicated truth than what we might call political reality. What about getting to the bottom of why we did this? And when I say, we, I do mean we. . We as a country. Did we as a country commit torture? And if so, how? If so, why?
Last week I re-read a story by the fearless Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia called “Death and the Knight”. I think it might be instructive here. It appears in English translation in the collection Open Doors (Vintage Books, 1993). Written the year before Sciascia’s death in 1989, “Death and the Knight” is a story about a police deputy investigating a murder – but it’s more a mediation on helplessness in the face of absolute power. At one point a character – who himself will soon be murdered says:
There is one power, which is visible, identifiable, and numerable, but there is another, which is without name or without names, and which swims underwater. The visible power is in permanent conflict with the underwater power, especially at moments when it has the gall to break the surface with vigor, that is to say with violence and bloodshed…
Of course, the quote could be interpreted as an allusion to the mafia and Sciascia is famous in Europe (lesser known here) for his many books on Sicily and the mafia (sometimes called metaphysical detective novels) but this late story is different, even for Sciascia, and reaches into far murkier areas and is, finally, more about the mind than killing. It’s about what the minds of pliant bureaucrats (and a pliant public) can justify and what the mind of one man can defy.
The police deputy is a man buried by a lifetime of reading. Not a cliched bookish cop, but someone literally paralyzed by what he’s read, even at one point, confusing a description from a Carlo Gadda novel with something he’s lived through himself. Books have begun to define the contours of his reality – even as it becomes clear that the deputy himself is slowly dying of cancer.
The story’s initial murder has something to do with one of the most powerful businessmen in Italy – a man called simply “The President” but the police investigation led by the deputy’s chief centers on a mythical terrorist group invented to obscure The President’s involvement in the killing. The deputy soon comes to understand that the actual truth will never come out because no one – his chief especially – is particularly interested in it. And worse, the idea of it is frightening. And yet, and yet…. the deputy, perhaps due in some way to his obsession with literature, with stories, insists, to the end, that he has no choice but to continue his lonely, reckless quest to link The President to the murder. A reader winces as the deputy keeps investigating after warnings that he ought to stop for his own good. Sciascia nearly drops any pretext of an actual mystery in the case. This is no longer a detective story. The great mystery becomes – and this is why the story is so compelling and unusual – Why won’t the deputy quit?
Why? Why keep digging around? Can’t he just leave well enough alone? What skin is it off his back? There are moments in the story you want to shout, Stop. Enough. I get it, I get it. Save yourself. Or at least let your own cancer kill you not –
At one point the police deputy insults a journalist (referred to as the Great Journalist) – as uninterested in what actually happened as his boss on the force – “Have you never heard of the love of truth?”
The Great Journalist answers: “Vaguely.”
Political truths tend, maybe, to be vague. Story truths, deeper truths, are harder to stomach.
Late in the story, the deputy thinks, “Morphine is wonderful: it is essential to take it when you cannot stand any more…”