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GUILT
by Ferdinand von Schirach and Carol Janeway, trans.
Knopf, January 2012
160 pages
$24.00
ISBN: 0307599493


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Any reader with more than a nodding acquaintance with the history of the Third Reich is bound to be momentarily taken aback by the title of this collection of short stories coupled with its author's surname. Ferdinand von Schirach is indeed the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, once head of the Hitlerjugend and later Gauleiter of Vienna. Convicted at Nuremberg of crimes against humanity, he was sentenced to twenty years. Without indulging in irresponsible parlour psychoanalysis, it would be surprising if the question of guilt did not intrigue a writer with someone like that as an immediate ancestor, especially if that author is, like von Schirach, a defence attorney into the bargain, and one who has represented some quite notorious defendants.

None of the stories in this book is longer than fifteen pages; one of them, "Anatomy," perhaps the most devastating of the lot, is under three. All are prompted by von Shirach's experience as an attorney. The three key words that appear on the copyright page sum it all up: "1. Guilt. 2. Innocence. 3. Responsibility." The cases are told in a dry, cool voice, a voice one imagines as coming out of a dim corner of a waiting room or bar, spoken by a stranger. The stories are so tightly constructed that it is impossible to write about them in any detail, for fear of ruining the experience for the reader. But they generally all follow a common pattern.

First we have the story of a crime. Even when it is horrendous, von Schirach allows it to speak to us directly, with no emotive language to shape or soften our reaction. In "Funfair," a seventeen-year-old student has a summer job serving beer at the town fair. The entertainment consists of an amateur brass band who are "respectable men with respectable jobs." On this hot August afternoon, the waitress brings the men their beer orders as they take a break. She slips, falls, wets the front of her T-shirt with spilled beer. The respectable men, husbands and fathers, see her breasts outlined under her thin shirt, drag her behind a curtain, rape and beat her and shove her under a board in the stage and resume their gig. "They were playing a polka as the police pulled the girl out." The case was one of von Schirach's earliest and one of his most important, because its outcome, with all it had to reveal about the space between legal guilt and innocence, the responsibility of all concerned, police, lawyers, judges, as well as the perpetrators, permanently altered the young lawyer's view of his chosen profession. As he and a young colleague journey home, "we thought about the girl and the respectable men, and we didn't look at each other...we knew things would never be the same again."

And that's the way most of the stories unfold. If anything "Funfair" is among the more elaborate. Most of the rest lay out the details for us in that dry, unemotional voice and conclude with a killer sentence guaranteed to jolt the reader into a reconsideration of what has gone before. But the sentence is not a trick; it is just another, devastating fact.

These stories should prompt North American readers, at least, to take a fresh look at their own justice systems. We have become so inured to the high drama of publicised cases, with their perp walks, orange jump suits, shackled defendants, ludicrously long sentences, and, above all, the equal value placed on justice and revenge, that what apparently goes on in Germany is a bit of a shock. Neither judge, prosecutor, nor defence attorney is expected to be partial. On the contrary, all appear to collaborate to ensure that the law itself is paramount and respected. For example, the law on premeditated murder is instructive: it allows a perpetrator credit for second thoughts. Von Schirach posits a man aiming a gun at a woman: "he cocks it, he sees the blood running down her arm, and he sees her fear....A bad law would sentence the man for attempted murder; an intelligent law wants to save the woman." So if the man stops, he will be charged only with causing the woman bodily harm, not with attempted murder. In short, it encourages reflection and might in that way save a life.

The translation by Carol Janeway is extremely good - readable, lucid, and close to the cadences of the original.

The epigraph, attributed to Aristotle, though ancient is still startlingly modern: "Die Dinge sind, wie sie sind." - "Things are as they are." And what they are is too often unbearable.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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