- Anton Piatigorsky
Could the United States have elected Donald Trump if it had not first established an extraterritorial enclave where civic and civilizational norms do not apply? It now seems possible to think of the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay – which a U.S. official once called "the legal equivalent of outer space" – as one of the places where American liberal democracy began to lose gravity. And while both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have had enough civic sense to want to close the place, members of Congress have consistently obstructed those efforts, which must mean that the subversion Guantanamo represents appeals to many voters. Why else would Trump have promised from the campaign trail last year to keep it open and "load it up?"
Anton Piatigorsky has been interested in the relationship between personality and misrule for some time now. His previous book, The Iron Bridge, was a well-researched collection of short stories about turning points in the adolescent lives of dictators. His debut novel, Al-Tounsi, is a similarly research-intensive fiction, loosely inspired by the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court case Boumediene v. Bush. In that case, the court ruled 5-4 in favour of Lakhdar Boumediene and five other Algerian nationals who filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus from Guantanamo after U.S. agents had seized them in Bosnia in 2002. The United States had accused them of plotting to attack the U.S. embassy in Sarajevo but eventually dropped the claim.
Piatigorsky's narrative is thinly pseudonymous, with a President Shaw standing in for Bush, and Subic Bay, a real but disused U.S. naval base in the Philippines, standing in for Guantanamo. His Supreme Court justices are imaginary, as is the Tunisian petitioner for whom the book is named. This time around, Piatigorsky's research focuses on law and civic debate rather than biography, leaving him freedom to develop his own characters and to dodge at least some of the immense complexity of his subject. His method is somewhat akin to what teams of writers have attempted for TV serials such as House of Cards, distilling civic matters into material for compelling institutional soap operas.
While not delving into the affairs of all nine judges on his Supreme Court, Piatigorsky presents an ensemble of all-too-human judges: Rodney Sykes, a lonely old fellow racked with guilt and self-doubt after his cat dies because of his neglect; Gideon Rosen, the court's leading liberal, who doubts he'll ever live up to the legacy of his idol, Louis Brandeis; Killian Quinn, the hardline Catholic conservative who is, of course, screwing someone behind his wife's back while defending states' rights to anti-sodomy legislation; Sarah Kolmann, a cerebral feminist badly rattled by her husband's impending death from cancer; and Emmanuel Arroyo, a young judge trying to get himself confirmed after having just impregnated Sykes's estranged daughter out of wedlock.
Piatigorsky is clearly passionate about his main theme, which is the human factor underlying the affairs of court and state, but the task he set for himself has overwhelmed him. The judges are thinly rendered and come across more like a league of neurotic superheroes than an assembly of legal philosophers. Piatigorsky's focus on a majority of judges at the expense of a few others throws the work badly off balance. Al-Tounsi himself barely figures, which might work as a device of sorts, except that he figures a little. On the way to the court's fateful ruling and an act of subversion by one of the judges, the characters pass through a series of tangential personal dramas that do not complement the whole or illuminate why the big case on all their minds really matters. Much of the legal detail is delivered through an as-you-know-type exposition.
Piatigorsky deserves credit for his creative ambition and civic curiosity – he is something of a researcher's writer and must have relished studying the workings of the court – but it is not hard to see why the novel went awry. To watch any real-life Supreme Court justice interviewed on C-SPAN is to encounter an outsized personality, a learned civic heavyweight. They often seem to physically embody a lifetime of experiences, burdens and, in some cases, prejudices. It would be an enormous achievement for a writer to make even one such person live upon the page, let alone to repeat the feat several times over and have the creations interact with each other.
The fallibility and potential irrationality of these powerful people is not a bad subject, although as fate would have it, last year's election refocused attention to those questions on the executive (even if Trump plans to load up the Supreme Court by appointing as many socially conservative, pro-corporate justices as he can, few of those could be as ill-prepared for their responsibilities as he is). The best argument for liberal democracy is its inherent pessimism about human nature and the way it subverts the problem of personality by dividing power – whether in government or on the court – to spare us all from being captured and contained within the pathologies of other people. That is what bothers the worst men in Guantanamo, along with their sometime torturers and the people who vote for them.
Roland Elliott Brown is a Canadian writer who lives in London. He has written for The Guardian, The Spectator and Foreign Policy.