Guilt (Anglais) Relié – 1 mars 2012
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Ferdinand von Schirach was born in Munich in 1964 and is one of Germany's most prominent defence lawyers. His first collection of stories, Verbrechen (Crime), became an instant bestseller in Germany when it was launched in 2009 and was published in over thirty territories around the world.
Carol Brown Janeway's translations include Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, Jan Philipp Reemtsa's In the Cellar, Hans-Ulrich Treichel's Lost, Zvi Kolitz's Yosl Rakover Talks to God, Benjamin Lebert's Crazy, Sándor Márai's Embers, Yasmina Reza's Desolation, Margriet de Moor's The Storm, and Daniel Kehlmann's Fame and Measuring the World.
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This collection of cases is stunning in its diversity and impact. None of the cases is typically German. They deal with various aspects of a key judicial term, guilt. The searing opening tale “Funfair” shows how powerless judges and prosecutors can be when the accused choose to remain silent. Its longest story “The Key”, the book’s most violent and most hilarious tale, focuses loosely on Lebanese criminal families in Berlin. Other cases include a trio of juvenile Satanists at a boarding school, a cold case solved via DNA, a sadistic husband and a case about a convicted paedophile.
Von Schirach expresses his admiration for Germany’s code of criminal law, which dates back to the 19th century and which clearly defines deadly crimes against persons. Every murder is also a manslaughter, but how many manslaughters are murders? In one spectacular case von Schirach realizes only after the judge acquits his client that the judge was smarter than he himself and knew all the time what really must have happened. A perceived weakness of German criminal justice is the size of its apparatus in large cities: in a case of mistaken identity a man is wrongly charged with a crime he could never have committed. In another case rural judges are shown to have more leeway than their colleagues operating from within massive institutions.
Best of all, von Schirach is a gifted stylist and a born storyteller.
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His prose style is reminiscent of Flannery O' Connor, Thomas Bernhard, Par Latgervist and any number of writers who drive reality home like a dentist drill into a cavity. Though the title is pretty accurate--what he is doing here is exploring the complexities of crime in relation to one of those central human emotions, guilt--he runs the gamut of what one can do in 143 pages.
Adopting the persona of a defense lawyer, each story ends on a sort of open note of tragedy, or occasionally on a note of semi triumph. A with a happy life and a beautiful wife is accused of sexually molesting two of his underage female students. In a particularly standout story (though all of them really are) a Korean man is found with a red briefcase containing photographs of corpses with stakes driven through their hearts. The quiet tone of each tale contains an explosive globule, a commentary on the human condition as one of misperceptions and haywire human emotions. Not once is Schirach anything but subdued which makes the writing even more powerful.
Sometimes one finds obscure collections that almost make it, sort of make it, or don't make it at all. This one makes it in spades. I plan on ordering Schirach's earlier work. I'm not far from calling this collection a masterpiece. Not to be missed by any lover of literature.
Ferdinand von Schirach is one of Germany's most high-profile lawyers, a criminal defense attorney with a high profile practice in Berlin who turned to writing two years ago. His grandfather was Baldur von Schirach, the head of the Hitler Youth for much of the 1930s, and after his capture by Allied troops at the end of the war was eventually sentenced to 20 years for crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. With a background like this, my anticipation that this was going to be an interesting book was high.
As sometimes happens, expectation can be a bit higher than the realities we find.
Author von Schirach's Guilt is a slim volume of fifteen separate vignettes, individual short stories seemingly based on factual incidents. The nameless narrator is a criminal defense lawyer, one who represents or counsels his clients. The crimes involved range from the mundane to the peculiar; the comprehensible to the horrific. Some of his clients come out as innocent and some are jailed. The narrator is no attorney from a John Grisham novel, but a capable and sympathetic legal representative, and does his job as expected.
But where this could have been a colorful and fascinating book, most of the characters are fairly flat, and in some cases I felt that I was reading a condensation of various legal briefs, some short taking only a few pages, and others spanning years and twenty or more pages. I kept looking for more in each tale, yet a distant coolness seemed to separate the lawyer as narrator from most of his clients. There were some high points, and some were even a bit funny. Perhaps the best one in the book is "The Key," tale of some truly inept career criminals with a get rich quick scheme and a mastiff that had swallowed an important key to a locker in which rested their fortune. Picture if you will a large laxative-stuffed dog trapped in a Maserati and you have a scene which both dreadful and yet quite comical.
But most of the rest of the stories are narrated in a detached manner, tales that beg to have some depth and dimension yet for the most they come out as flat.
It's not that I find the cultural differences between German translations to English to be hard to deal with, as I had thoroughly enjoyed Swiss columnist and author Martin Suter's novel A Deal with the Devil ('Der Teufel von Mailand' in German), and it had been a translated offering. Carol Brown Janeway had expertly translated von Schirach's earlier work `Crime' so it's doubtful that she could have done much more with what the author had provided.
There's enough here that will keep many readers engrossed, perhaps even enjoying the flat and even narratives found in author von Schirach's book of legal tales. Sometimes a collection of short stories in small bites like this are good as a break from larger books that keep the reader glued from one page to the next.
The cases vary in severity. In one, a girl is brutally assaulted and raped. Unbeknownst to her she is pregnant and gives birth to a stillborn child. In another vignette there is a brass band consisting of nine members. Eight of the men are involved in the rape and brutal assault of a young woman. Because the evidence is compromised, no DNA is available and there is no hard evidence to prove who the eight guilty men are. One of the men is innocent and so they all get off. In another vignette, a man asks a young man and his girlfriend, both beggars, to his home and tragedy ensues. The vignettes are all about guilt or exoneration, the past and the present and how one can make peace with injustice.
All in all, I found this book rather uninteresting. It reads like several little crime novels without the meaty aspects that one would expect from this genre.
The stories are loosely connected. This did not bother me, as each one had it's own merit in a collection of interesting cases recounted by a German defense attorney. As I finished the book, I had the thought that Quinten Tarantino might find some of these stories quite inspiring.
I enjoyed learning a little bit about the German law and it's application. It was interesting to see how some judges were willing and able to find ways to make the law work more fairly in cases that weren't foreseen ("Comparison") and how others were not ("DNA"). Though I am sure there are many differences between American and German law, it was interesting to see the fact that there is one sad common bond that all defense lawyers share at the beginning of their careers ("Funfair").
Some of the the stories expose the depravity, loneliness, and/ or cruelty that we wish were only the creation of an author's mind ("The Illuminati", "Children", "The Other Man"), others bring a welcome lightness in the midst of the dark ("The Key, "Secrets"), and one brings a sense of relief at the dispensing of an unexpected poetic justice ("Anatomy"). Two of the stories were interesting and yet ultimately perplexing ("The Briefcase" and "Snow"). For me, one of the least sensational stories became the most interesting ("Family"). This is because the main character was a man who did not allow his heredity determine his destiny.
All in all this was a very interesting read. if you don't like reading about the bizarre and violent choices human beings make, this is not the book for you. It is not gratuitous, but it is not sanitized either.
Ferdinand von Schirach - a leading German defense attorney and the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth and convicted at Nuremberg - has no doubt pondered the nature of guilt in all its manifestations more than most of us. "Defense is war, a war for the rights of the accused," Mr. von Schirach quotes at the beginning. It's a particular type of war where being innocent doesn't always mean being vindicated and guilty doesn't always mean being wrong.
Here, he showcases 15 stories based on real cases, exploring the gray and not-so-gray meanings of guilt.His vignettes are written in a sparse, straightforward, sometimes clinical tone - think Ray Carver, for example. The simplicity of the style belies the emotional power that hides behind it. Whether it's the inadvertent manslaughter death of a beloved art teacher by a pack of cult followers, the justified murder of a wickedly abusive husband in Comparison, the comeuppance of a drug dealer in Snow, the post traumatic stress of a very young would-be mother in Lonely.
One senses there are two von Schirachs: the dispassionate and professional defense attorney who has learned to carefully cull the facts and another one, who might be shaking his head in amazement. The author presents a diversity of cases, which could have been mere file cases in the hands of a lesser author, and presents what guilt and its impact mean to the perpetrator and those who are closest to him or her.
I've never quite read anything like this and it's difficult to assign a star rating. I will say that the author - and his translator, Carol Brown Janeway - have, through an economy of words, created mesmerizing portrayals that provide a real whiplash despite the laconic style. It's well worth the read.