Tag Archives: Carol Brown Janeway

Guilt – Ferdinand Von Schirach

Last November I happened upon a collection of short stories that resonated with me and I found I couldn’t really stop thinking about. This collection was ‘Crime’ by Ferdinand von Schirach, all tales fictionalising some of the cases he has come across, and even defended, in his time as a solicitor. When his second collection ‘Guilt’ dropped through the letterbox I was thrilled, yet I did have trepidations as ‘Crime’ had rather unnerved me with how some people get away with truly terrible things, would it be the same in ‘Guilt’ or could it be even worse?

Chatto & Windus, hardback, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, 2012, fiction, 192 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

If you are of a squeamish disposition or someone who worries late at night about all the most unlikely scenarios that could happen to you the next day (we have all done this at some point haven’t we?) then I am not sure I would recommend the second collection of Ferdinand von Schirach stories, translated by Carol Brown Janeway. You see, like his previous collection ‘Crime’, Ferdinand tells us of the most unlikely, dark, horrific or traumatic things that can happen to people and how the perpetrators can get away with them.

In this collection we have children running cults, drug barons who are afraid of nothing and know no limits to revenge, a seemingly harmless old man who turns killer at a train station, a briefcase with horrifying contents and endless secrets. All incredibly tantalizing and weirdly fascinating. Two of the most disturbing tales, ‘Funfair’ (which is anything but fun) and ‘The Illuminati’ (which would make quite a horror film), will possibly never leave me. I think about them now and shudder before thinking a) how on earth did anyone get away with such things and b) how on earth did it not make the press?

Not knowing the British legal system (other than for Visa applications, getting a passport as I haven’t killed anyone… yet) I couldn’t really compare what goes on in the German system, but I did find myself thinking ‘oh that wouldn’t happen in the UK’. But would it, or does it already and we just never hear about it where we live, or only get to hear the odd horrific crime now and again, not every crime must be reported for whatever reason must it? This is where if you are someone who can worry about a piano falling on you on every street you turn (I used to think this and that a shark might suddenly appear in the local pool and eat me, I have sought help and am fine now, ha) you should maybe rethink reading it, but if you have a grim fascination with the most bizarre and terrible things people can do then you should give this a whirl.

I should say that not all of the stories are utterly horrific. Awful things might happen but Ferdinand has an interest in looking at why people did them, after all there are many accidental murders or ones commited in self defence, one such tale with a brilliant twist is ‘Comparison’, it is tales like that and ‘Anatomy’ which shocked me so suddenly I laughed, which make you really think how you would judge something if you knew all the facts.

Yet again Ferdinand von Schirach delivers a very intriguing and insightful, if occasionally difficult to read, collection with ‘Guilt’. I hope he keeps them coming to be honest, is that awful? I also wonder if he might ever give a full length novel a whirl, could there be a true life case that he could ‘fictionalise’ that could last for a few hundred pages and keep us held. Or could he come up with something dark and original using the uneasy and bizarre he sees in his day to day work? If you haven’t tried ‘Crime’ or ‘Guilt’ do give them a try, if you dare, I will definitely be reading whatever Ferdinand von Schirach produces next.

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Filed under Chatto & Windus, Ferdinand Von Schirach, Review, Short Stories

Crime – Ferdinand Von Schirach

If you are something of a crime fan, like myself, then a book with simply ‘Crime’ as the title is going to pique your interest. I hadn’t heard of Ferdinand Von Schirach until I was mooching around the library and the cover and the title caught my eye. My interest was piqued and so it made its way home with me (and possibly one or two other books, I couldn’t comment), this is the joy of the library – you never know what treat might be lying in wait for you.

Chatto & Windus, trade paperback, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, 2011, fiction, 192 pages, from the library

‘Crime’ is a very interesting book in many ways. In part it is a collection of short stories which then reads like a novel because it is the same nameless lawyer telling is the tale of some of the clients that come into his life through work. Each tale is relatively short with an average length of about twelve pages, the longest ‘Summertime’ being just under 30 pages. What links all eleven of these tales is that the people involved all commit incredibly criminal acts, yet they get away with it. Some of it is with the lawyers help but some of it is because of the circumstances behind the crimes. Why each crime is actually committed is where all of these tales lie.

In these cases we meet a man who kills his wife, a boyfriend who cuts out a part of his girlfriends back to see what she tastes like, a gang who steal something from another unwittingly, a prostitute found mysteriously dead in a hotel room, a boy who kills the local sheep and many more. Each of the stories in their own right makes for enthralling reading, if a little uncomfortable on occasion (Schirach is quite detailed and the book is a little graphic), it is the motive or circumstance behind the action that I became more and more fascinated.

I couldn’t believe as I read that if I had been a juror on the case involved in ‘Fahner’ I too would have let a man off the murder of his wife and what of the man who dismembered his girlfriends “client” in ‘Bliss’. Was I not pleased the old man defended himself in ‘Self-Defence’? These are not cut and dry cases, they are also not all ones where you feel for the criminal. In ‘Summertime’, ‘Green’ ‘Tanata’s Tea Bowl’ and ‘Love’ I was horrified that people had walked free, it makes you think who might be walking down the street with you – be warned, yet fascinated how they did.

After finishing the book I went and did some research into the author and was amazed to discover in a review of ‘Crime’ in The New York Times that “his grandfather, Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth for most of the 1930s and later the wartime governor of Vienna, was convicted of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg. Perhaps influenced by his family history, the younger von Schirach became a criminal defence lawyer, and in the mid-’90s sprang into the national consciousness by defending Günter Schabowski, a senior East German official, against charges of complicity in the shoot-to-kill policy along the Berlin Wall.” It seems that the theme of guilt and what makes us guilty is very much at the heart of this novel, and reading the authors background I know why.

With this in mind I was more surprised by the slight flaw in the collection for me. I never quite bonded with the narrator, and Von Schirach is in the trade which makes it so real but he never fills the stories with legal jargon, or the people he created. They read like fascinating cases, not really fully fleshed short stories. Oddly they still worked and I was mesmerised throughout. I don’t think it was down to the translation (from German by Carol Brown Janeway who translated ‘The Reader’ wonderfully) but was actually a stylized decision. It gives you distance and the lack of emotion means you put yourself in the defence lawyer’s place, clever and effective I agree but also slightly cold. There were two exceptions though and in both ‘The Cello’ and ‘The Ethiopian’ I found myself incredibly moved by the people, cases and circumstances in both tales. ‘The Ethiopian’ is the most hard hitting, emotional and yet hopeful, and ends the collection very well.

Overall ‘Crime’ is a great collection of tales. It might not be the most literary book of the year, but it is one of the cleverest that I have come across this year. It makes you think that really we can never judge a crime we read about in the papers unless we know the full facts, it looks at what makes humans guilty and what are extenuating circumstances, it will make you question your morals and who on earth you sit next to on the bus – be warned! I am very much looking forward to his next collection due next year, and hope he is working on something longer for the future too. I am also left wanting to know where the line between Von Schirach’s experience and telling a story lies, though maybe it would freak me out even more if I did.

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Filed under Ferdinand Von Schirach, Review