Friday February 25th, 2011

Dancing on Thin Ice

Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach
Knopf, 208 pp., $25.00

Anyone who doesn’t judge books by their covers, at least a little, probably doesn’t read much. The book-grab at my office is filled mostly with pre-publication review copies in their plain card-stock covers, making first impressions impossible. But I’m a huge patron. Desperation for lunchtime reading imposes a different standard, and the upside is that I find all kinds of things my prejudices might otherwise dismiss unopened. For instance, Ferdinand von Schirach’s Crime.

After reading part of one story, a bit put off by what seemed like an affectless style (I tend to like my crime fiction juicier), I realized the name von Schirach rang a bell and darted back to the brief preface, titled “Guilt.” Crime is fiction rooted in truth. Von Schirach is a top criminal lawyer in Berlin, and the stories are influenced by his experience practicing and the lives of his clients. More importantly, the cool tone, which I’d initially taken for latter-day Existential Fiction Lite took on a different cast:

…I tell the stories of people I’ve defended. They were murderers, drug dealers, bank robbers, and prostitutes. They all had their stories, and they weren’t so different from us. All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it’s very cold underneath, and death is quick. The ice won’t bear the weight of some, and they fall through. That’s the moment that interests me. If we’re lucky, it never happens to us and we keep dancing. If we’re lucky.

Von Schirach is a well known figure in German law independent of his literary efforts (Crime, his second book, has been a bestseller there for a year or more), having twice defended prominent figures from the former East Germany (the former Politburo member Günter Schabowski and the former spy Norbert Juretzko) as well as a variety of famous and infamous public figures. He is the grandson of the war criminal Baldur von Schirach, who was convicted of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg.

He dedicates the book to his uncle, who survived terrible injuries in the Second World War to become a “a good judge, humane, an upright man with a sense of justice,” but who nevertheless fell through the ice. It’s a rare nonfiction preface that can move you to tears. I returned to the stories.

Most of the collection focuses on ordinary people who have slipped, or brought themselves, into a terrible moment. Von Schirach says German justice is in some ways more humane than the American system, which can be chaotic and randomly cruel. It is not the law that has undone these people, but life itself. Circumstances, bad choices, and foolishness have unexpectedly broken the ice, and someone — ordinary citizen or habitual criminal — is suddenly in over his head.

Only one of the stories (“Self-Defense”) is about someone extraordinary, an inoffensive looking man who swiftly kills, Jason Bourne-style and on camera, two skinheads who attempt to rob him. He calmly waits to be apprehended and blandly declines to identify himself once he is. As he has committed no crime under German law, he is quickly released, despite signs that there must be more to the story. In a book about thieves, killers and prostitutes, he is the only subject for whom the author displays contempt. This is the story most about the author, and the moral ambiguities of defense. Von Schirach’s contempt for the killer is matched by an evident disgust with himself as an agent of the system that must release him without further investigation.

Had Oliver Sacks chosen law as his great subject, instead of neurology, Crime is the book he might have written. Sacks, of all contemporary writers on science, is perhaps the most literary, and seldom writes about pathology per se. Even when the work is not intended for a popular audience (like Migraine), neurological disease always resides in the complex juncture between the pathology and the individual person. The stories in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat take on an almost mythological quality, with Sacks’ subjects trapped in bizarre states of existence: the musician who retains his intelligence and cultivation but can no longer distinguish faces from hats or doorknobs, or the woman who can perceive only the right half of anything, and at dinner must have her plate rotated by 180 degrees for her so she can see what remains of her meal.

Von Schirach’s stories often have this quality — they are not about the law, but about the people facing the law. He fixes the human condition by putting a pin though the exact spot where some freakish confluence of personality and events places a person in extremis, in the place where character, bad luck, rules, and perversity come together.

These stories have kernels of truth, but the author has frequently refined this assertion (elsewhere), explaining they can only be true within the limitations of a 15-page story that covers a case whose file might fill four meters of shelf space. He compares the problem to that of Borges cartographers, who attempt to draw a map of the world on a 1:1 scale. Truth, says von Schirach, resides not in exact replication but in imaginative shaping.

Peter Coates is an artist, programmer, and writer living in Brooklyn.

Mentioned in this review:

Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach
Migraine by Oliver Sacks
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks