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Allen Mendenhall Interviews Anton Piatigorsky, Author of “Al-Tounsi”

In Arts & Letters, Books, Creative Writing, Criminal Law, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, liberal arts, Literature, Novels, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Philosophy, Writing on October 4, 2017 at 6:45 am

AM: Thanks for discussing your debut novel with me, Anton.  It’s titled Al-Tounsi and involves U.S. Supreme Court justices who are laboring over a case about an Egyptian detainee held on a military base in the Philippines. How did you come up with this premise for a novel? 

AP:  I was interested in the intersection between contemporary legal and political issues and the personal lives of the justices. I was particularly impressed by the ways in which the writ of habeas corpus has been used (and suspended) throughout U.S. history.

The Great Writ is a heroic call to responsibility—a demand made by the judiciary for the executive to live up to its obligations to imprisoned individuals. While it has obvious political and social ramifications, it also has philosophical ones. It encourages moral and psychological reckoning: what are our responsibilities to others?

I was excited about writing a novel where two strains—the political and the personal—overlap and blend. I realized that if I fictionalized the important 2008 Guantanamo Bay case Boumediene vs. Bush—by changing key events, decisions and characters—I could use it as the basis for a novel about the Court that explores all my interests.

Anton Piatigorsky

AM: How did you decide to change directions and write about the law?  Did this case just jump out at you?  Your previous writings address a wide variety of subjects but not, that I can tell, law. 

AP:  I came to the law, strangely enough, through religion. I’ve long been interested in how religion functions, and especially in the ways that secular systems mimic religious ones. When I started reading about American law and the U.S. Supreme Court, I saw those institutions as a part of an Enlightenment era secular religion. From this perspective, law is a system of rituals, codes and writings that helps establish an identity for a community, a set of shared values and beliefs, and a way for people to function within the world. I found that fascinating. It inspired all sorts of questions.

What are the general beliefs about people and the world that lie beneath the American legal system? How are those beliefs enacted in cases, courts, and legal writings? How do they play out in the rituals of the Court?  How do the justices of the Supreme Court —who are, in some ways, high priests of the legal world — reconcile conflicts between their personal beliefs and the foundational beliefs of the legal system they guide?

The fictional stories I wanted to tell about justices’ lives grew out of these general questions. Those questions also led me into an investigation of the main case before them.

AM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book, to me, is the Afterword, which consists of the concurring opinion of the fictional Justice Rodney Sykes.

AP: I have always loved novels of ideas, when a character’s emotional journey overlaps with their complex thoughts and beliefs. Whenever that type of fiction really works — as it does with Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the character’s philosophy or worldview stands alone as a work of non-fiction. And so the novel becomes part fiction, part critical thought. It functions as a critique on ideas that circulate in the real world.

That’s what I hoped to achieve for Justice Rodney Sykes’s formal opinion in the novel’s Afterword. I wanted Rodney to reach a powerful critique of basic tenets of the American legal system. I wanted him to address what our responsibilities are (or aren’t) towards others in the legal system, and the problems with that system’s fundamental faith in individual actors. In his concurrence, Rodney takes an unorthodox and unlikely stance for a Supreme Court Justice, but that’s what makes it a work of fiction. A novel can be the perfect forum to discuss how a real person might come to a radical decision, and how that decision might revolutionize their thoughts and actions.

AM: Who are your favorite living writers?

AP:  I particularly admire J.M. Coetzee and Alice Munro. I think about their works often while I’m writing and editing my own.

Coetzee has written several fantastic “novels of ideas.” Both Diary of a Bad Year and Elizabeth Costello manage to incorporate far-reaching critiques into their larger stories about characters, and they do so while using imaginative formal techniques. I also love Coetzee’s cold and austere style in his less overtly intellectual books. They’re cleanly written, shockingly honest, and endlessly compelling.

Alice Munro—although it’s almost a cliché to praise her at this point—shows remarkable insight into her characters, gradually revealing their motivations, resentments and surprising decisions without ever erasing their fundamental mysteries as people. Her stories are complex formally, but in such a quiet way that I often don’t notice their structures until I’ve read them a few times. Her writing is a great model for how to show characters’ lives and decisions with efficiency and imagination while maintaining mystery.

AM: Do you intend to continue in the novel form in your own writing?

AP:  Absolutely. I would love to write more legal fiction, as well. I’ve spent years learning about the law, but know that I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are so many potentially interesting legal stories. I’m also at the early stages of a new novel, which is not explicitly about law, but does feel like an outgrowth of Al-Tounsi in certain ways.

AM: I worked for a state Supreme Court justice for over three years, and I agree: there are many interesting legal stories out there, and I’ve found that facts are often stranger than fiction.

AP:  It must be fascinating to work on the diverse cases that roll through a court. I can only imagine how many potential stories you and other lawyers, judges and court workers can recall—ideas for a million novels and movies and plays.

I think legal stories are particularly exciting for fiction because they distill big questions into concrete human situations and personalities. The giant subjects of guilt and innocence, love and betrayal, responsibilities towards others as opposed to ourselves, community or self-reliance, greed, jealousy and ambition all play out in specific facts and events, in the concrete details of a case. It’s just like in a novel. And since the American legal system is, in my mind, an application of an entire Enlightenment, philosophic worldview, these test cases and stories also pose huge philosophical, ethical and moral questions. It’s no coincidence some of the best novels ever written involve detailed legal plots.

AM:  That reminds me of something Justice Holmes once said: “Law opens a way to philosophy as well as anything else.”  But it sounds as if you and I would go further and say it might open a way better than many other things do.

AP:  Law is like applied philosophy; It puts general ideas to the test in the real world. If a philosophy remains theoretical it never really touches what it means to live it, inside it. The answers theoretical philosophy provides are always tentative.

A huge inspiration for my novel was the work of the late French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. While Levinas’s writing is often arcane and difficult to get through, I find his thinking to be a powerful and searing indictment of basic Enlightenment principles. While I was writing Al-Tounsi, I used Levinas’s insights—directly—to help me construct Justice Sykes’s final concurrence. It was hugely inspiring to find a concrete way to use this philosophy I have long loved. All the questions and problems I was interested in exploring were present in this genuine legal situation, in the constitutional habeas corpus case, Boumediene vs. Bush, on which I based my fictional case of Al-Tounsi vs. Shaw.

So, yes, I completely agree with you and Justice Holmes!

AM:  So glad we had this opportunity to talk.  Let’s do it again.  

 

 

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