On the surface Hands of the Tyrants is theater of the absurd, a satirical look at the right of freedom of expression—through art and speech. It pokes fun at the artist who takes him/herself too seriously. It brings the concept of protest to the level of the ludicrous.
I am reminded of the artist, commissioned by a national arts council to paint three stripes on a huge canvas; the payment was hundreds of thousands of dollars. My reaction (and I’m sure I wasn’t alone) was twofold: (1) “What were they thinking?” and (2) “Man, why didn’t I think of that?”
The underlying current in this novel is a subtle assault on the “intelligence” of the intelligence community. This is a sacred cow—a bastion of national defense that is supposedly unimpeachable. Lucas Young, the new agent is brought into the fold. His assignment is to infiltrate a potential national threat organization and report his findings. In a matter of weeks, his commitment to his duty to country tears at the very fabric of his psyche as he buys into the “hype” of a group hellbent on disrupting and ridiculing as many artistic displays as possible. He begins to see his government as a tyrant taking away the freedom of its subjects. Whilst his reports increasingly verge on the brink of insanity, Lucas’s superiors are gearing up to label Lucas a “rogue agent”.
Dr. Pangloss, the observer of the observer, is the voice of reason, the voice of experience. He has invested little/nothing into his duty; with clinical detachment he comments on the events, including Lucas’s downward spiral. His truth is the “truth”.
This calls to mind two analogies: one from my Psych 101 class and the other from WWII. In the unit on human intelligence and observation, my professor spoke of many interesting experiments where groups of people (5, 10, 15, 20) were presented with exactly the same stimulus/event and then were required to report exactly what they saw. When looked at as a whole, each story was very different. In fact there were very few details that were similar. Which truth is “true”? Which truth is the lie?
The second analogy comes from WWII. In reporting the casualties of war, an Allied reporter might say that 9,000 Allied men died while 75,000 Axis soldiers died in the same skirmish. An Axis reporter might say of the same battle that 100,000 Allied soldiers were killed, while only 5,000 Axis soldiers died. This is how propaganda works. Which truth is “true”? Which truth is the lie?
This book asks several questions. Which truth is true? Which truth is the lie? Who is/are the tyrants(s)?
This book is not an easy read. This is not a delightful story. It is not comfortable. It is insightful and powerful.