Book reviews from The Free Lance-Star.
Fact really is stranger than fiction
Attorney bases stories on real cases
By Kurt Rabin
The Free Lance-Star
WHAT is guilt? Does it arise from the act one commits, or the act that is left undone? These are the sorts of questions that “Guilt,” German author Ferdinand von Schirach’s latest collection of stories, provokes.
Perhaps the book’s dust jacket, where the word “Guilt” straddles two stark color blocks—one white, the other black—holds the only satisfactory explanation: Guilt resides in a gray area.
“Guilt” follows “Crime,” the author’s début story compilation that became an international sensation. Von Schirach, a Berlin criminal defense attorney who has counted underworld figures among his clients, bases his fiction on real-life cases. The new volume comprises 15 short tales, including one that marks a rite of passage for the narrator/author in his role as attorney, and into the ambiguities of adulthood, as well.
The writing, done in an almost clinical manner, is the very model of economy, with not a word wasted. And the effect is chilling. The tales, which read like parables, seem to be stranger than the stuff of fiction, as if there were no way someone could make them up out of whole cloth. Each could—with a bit more dialogue or a couple of establishing scenes added—be the basis of a novel or feature film.
Von Schirach is a gifted storyteller in so many ways. First, there’s his tendency to drop readers into his stories without any sort of preamble, often to great effect. For instance, here’s a sample first line: “Before they came to take him away, things had always gone well for Holbrecht.” I defy you not to continue reading after an opening like that.
Then there’s his use of the “game-changer” sentence he’ll unexpectedly insert into the text: “But then the thing in the hotel sauna happened, and it changed everything.”
And finally there are his endings, which often work on a number of levels: “We knew things would never be simple again.”
In “Funfair,” you’ll read about a small town drunkenly celebrating its 600th anniversary on a sweltering August day with a fun fair, when an anonymous tip leads police to find a young woman brutally beaten, raped and thrown under the floorboards of the very stage on which her attacker had just played a polka.
In “Illuminati,” the popular mean crowd at an all-boys boarding school wages a vicious attack against an outsider schoolmate and ends up unwittingly killing the boy’s beloved teacher.
If “Guilt” doesn’t quite attain the level of great literature, it does make for
a surefire guilty pleasure.
Kurt Rabin is a copy editor with The Free Lance–Star.
By Ferdinand von Schirach
(Knopf, $24, 160 pp.)
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