Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Book: Crime, by Ferdinand von Schirach (2011)

It’s a slender volume, barely 190 pages. Certainly the cover is striking. Spare, the author’s name banished to the spine. Initially, I didn’t know what to make of this book. At first I didn’t even like it.

Ferdinand von Schirach is a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Berlin. (He also dares to smoke in his dust jacket photo. This is why there will always be a Europe.) He wrote this collection of short stories based on his own experiences with clients. In diffident prose that I was quick to brand as flat-footed, he recounts offenses large and small. He ventures with caution into the heads of those involved, from victims to perpetrators, detectives to prosecutors. At some point “I” appears – never a name, merely “I” – but even that seems too much an intrusion. So is this fiction or non-fiction? Are they short stories or case studies? What, exactly, am I reading?

That question clouded the first few stories for me. But as I continued, and as von Schirach again and again managed to find quiet, human moments and present them unflinchingly, I found myself spellbound. People commit foolish, reckless, dangerous acts for a variety of reasons, and in giving them their moment von Schirach grants a dignity to the worst of them. His description of a small-time capo in “Tanata’s Tea Bowl” is a devastating portrait of evil in a handful of paragraphs. “Self-Defense” is about a man’s encounter with skinheads that devolves into something far more unsettling. In “Green” the worst crime may not even have occurred, but the reasons why it might have are worse than the deed itself.

In every one of these stories there is an ache eased by the fact that someone is there to record it, to notice. Von Schirach’s voice is ultimately that of an indifferent universe that cannot help us but leans ever so slightly in our favor. The notion that such a voice might find a place anywhere in the legal system is a solace in itself.

Crime was a smash in Germany, on bestseller lists for almost a year. Repeating that success here would be another kind of justice.