Guilt (Anglais) Relié – 1 mars 2012
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This devastating dossier of savage stories takes us to the crimes that never reach the newspapers: small-town atrocities where the mundane lurches into the macabre and ordinary people find themselves at the heart of horrific crimes, all the more compelling on account of their truth.
Opening with an attack on a waitress by a band of musicians in a beer tent, we are led through the rituals of the Illuminati by a violent schoolboy sect, and invited to look into a briefcase full of photographs of mutilated corpses. There is the saga of a bungled drug heist involving a stolen car and a dog full of laxatives; the jealous husband who almost bludgeons his wife's lover to death; and the final chilling story of an eccentric madman who cleverly turns the tables on his own defence lawyer...
Ferdinand von Schirach enacts this very same reversal on us: to read his disturbing accounts, told in cool, exacting prose, is to lose one's innocence and come to the frightening conclusion that, in some cases, guilty parties can be exonerated and perpetrators are often indictable by their guilt long before they are by the law.
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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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The stories in the book, on the other hand, have been filtered through the keenly perceptive and benevolent eyes of a tough-minded, Big City attorney. You can tell instantly from the manner and style of his prose that the author himself has been a highly successful public defender, touting years of experience under his belt and expert knowledge of the finer points of German juris prudence. Undoubtedly, he has been called "a damn good lawyer", who doesn't mince his words or pull any punches. Obviously, he has won the respect and admiration of his peers and judges alike throughout his long, illustrious career.
International in scope, most of his stories are about foreigners living in and adapting to life in Germany. The book is gushing with the spirit of diverse cultures. A thoroughly modern city environment, as well as a smattering of small town locations form the backdrop of events as they unfold in a plain-spoken, straight-forward way. Including three or four stories from the author's companion book, Crime, would have really spiced up the book, packed as it is-- sort of like cranking up the heat a couple of notches by basting an incredibly hot jalapena sauce onto the steaks already sizzling on a fiery grill. You can tell it's going to be a wing-ding of a barbeque, because you get the the distinct impression that the author doesn't just resolve crimes with smoke and mirrors. Somehow, I don't anticipate a third book coming out any time soon with either of the titles "Remorse" or "Regret." A book called "Relief" is possible, since you get the sense of "That's what the victim must feel when the verdict is reached!" in many of von Schirach's stories. Poetic justice is served. You can't be serious: a book of German short stories, called "Syrians?"
Nonetheless, there doesn't appear to be a great deal of pulse-pounding passion, or real sensitivity and emotion in the unique characterization of these stories. Some characters strike me as being awfully cold and void of feeling. I suppose they did what they did, in a harsh mileau and under the burden of a difficult situation. Complicated trial proceedings follow. Then, life continues all around them as before. In effect, they were bowled over by life-- more like being run over by a train, something that happens sometimes. They are never the same ever again afterwards. The courts try to pick up the pieces and assemble them back together as best as they can, like "Humpty-Dumpty." But, it's not always easy or a pretty sight to see. Mistakes have been made before. Yet, compromised and broken as they may seem, they are lifted upwards toward the clear blue sky.
The narrator sticks to the facts throughout the story, gives enough specific detail to make his point, and offers graphic descriptions of events as they unfold. As an artist, he paints a sharp, vivid, and contrasting picture of the subject, his surroundings, and significant circumstances. As any daring art critic worth his salt might boldly conclude, the author achieves a satisfying result each time, leaving the moralizing to the reader.
Schirach is a criminal defense lawyer in Germany. He is also an exceptional writer. His first book, Crime, was published in German in 2009; it was published in translation in the United States in 2011. A second volume, Guilt, was just published in the United States. A good friend suggested I read them. I've not yet read Guilt, but Crime hooked me.
A sister drowns her brother in a bathtub. Murder, mercy or necessary sorrow? A young prostitute dies bearing the semen of her high-powered lover who left her moments before her death; the lover lies about his relationship with her. Consciousness of guilt, or mere coincidence? A man kills two attackers with lethal precision, but refuses to utter a word to the police about it, not even giving his name, even to his lawyer. Self-defense, or a rare glimpse into a world of truths darker than those we care to hear?
Clients, families and friends tell criminal defense lawyers they ought to write books. The stories that cross the lintel of a busy office titillate and intrigue. Amid the commonplace order of our lives erupt passions and acts that stun one into silent submission: we are the playthings of larger powers. The practice of criminal law is enough to drive a person to prayer; it matters not whether the universe harbors a listener. Schirach writes his prayers to the silent watchman keeping vigil over all that we lose, again and again.
"Whether the lawyer thinks is client is innocent is irrelevant. His task is to defend the accused, no more, no less," he writes, and, of course, he is right. Yet clients often seem to believe otherwise, perhaps fearing that if a lawyer thinks them guilty, the lawyer will not defend them. A boy who kills another still has a long life ahead of him; it is that life his lawyer defends.
We are driven by things deeper than trifling logic of moral accountability. "Is it not everyone's deepest desire to return to those they love?" Desire, not the calculating claims of reason, moves us.
I cannot think of an American writer on the criminal justice system who writes with as deft a touch or as unblinking an eye as Schirach. Our fiction writers succumb to plots the resolve themselves or with characters capable of redemption. Nonfiction tells moral tales, extolling virtues and excoriating injustices, but rarely simply accepting the dire necessity of compromise. We like stories that complete a narrative cycle, that make sense, that teach. But sometimes the wheel simply spins. It is enough at such times simply to record the music of the spheres; we mustn't try to hard to make melody of cacophony.
Schirach has a good ear. I'd like to see him work in front of an American jury. I wonder whether our demand for answers doesn't sometimes blind us, whether we commit outrages of our own in the name of justice. Our grand trials are oftentimes less about the event presented before the court than the collective demand that something be done about the unseen sources of our discomfort. Watch the waves of print cascade after each incremental disclosure of some new evidence in the Trayvon Martin case, for example. We want to make the moment right, somehow, either for the killer or the victim. What if the real point is that the concept of right is simply a luxury we cannot afford when chaos comes calling?
I prefer to think of the law in terms of what I refer to as the Three Cs: conduct, concepts and consequences. What is this new case that darkens my door? What conduct has my client engaged in that leads him to me?
Then the next, and perhaps more crucial, question: What concepts are others using to describe my client's conduct? Into what box is a prosecutor, a school administrator, a neighbor trying to press my client? How can I keep that box from enclosing my client, and smothering him?
Finally, should a conceptual box be successfully fitted around my client, what can be done to limit the consequences to my client? A lawyer's job is ever and always to restore a client as best as he or she can to the condition in which the client was before they sought legal advice. Notice that questions of moral worth, of right, of wrong, of justice, do not intrude into this equation. Lawyers aren't priests, social workers or psychologists. That's not our role. I fear when we permit ourselves the luxury of these roles, we poorly serve the men and women who need us.
Schirach appears to practice law in this manner. Crime illustrates an easy familiarity with ambiguity, and a deft touch at storytelling. I am intrigued, even as I wonder how much liberty he took with his material: How much is narrative fancy required to tell the story? And just how did he obtain waivers of the attorney-client privilege to tell us as much as he did?
I'm a Schirach fan, now. I will report soon on Guilt, I suspect. Then I will await his next volume. His vision is dark but true. He sheds necessary light on a world or murky and messy facts, the sort of facts that define us all.
very similar as you read more of them. I deleted this from my
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.
I found these stories to be brilliant. They are difficult, painful stories that in some ways are as difficult on the reader as on the characters themselves. The characters are ordinary except for the things that suddenly define their lives. What changes their lives is sometimes not even known. In one case:
"Gradually everything disappeared until she was a mere shell. The world became alien to her; she no longer belonged in it. The children laughed, her husband got excited, their friends argued--but nothing touched her. She was serious, she laughed, she cried, she comforted-- it was all the way it usually was and all on cue. But when things were quiet and she looked at other people, in cafes or on the streetcar, she felt nothing of it had anything to do with her anymore" (72-73).
The stories are written in clear and almost brutal language. They are stories about the horror of everyday life, stories about the banality of evil, of horror.
These stories are beautiful.
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