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14 june 2020

Strafe, the third volume of Ferdinand von Schirach's "stories" about criminal-law cases in Berlin courts, presents the reader with many a tortured soul.

A juror empathizes so much with a crime victim that she breaks down in tears, throwing the case out of court. A broken-down defense attorney, down to his last chance, finds unlikely help from a gangland enforcer. The postman rings twice for a woman who's taken a big fall for her man. A lonely guy avenges the assault and rape that a neighbor inflicts on the only happy long-term partner he's ever had.

The readers' sympathies, always in play, can shift mightily in the course of a given story. A widower is bereft: that's sad, but he finds someone to accompany him in his misery by resorting to a less-than-best practice. A small man – literally, a short guy – has all sorts of troubles, till he decides to pull off a big crime and ends up being unable to win for losing. Another man, lonely his whole life because of a disfiguring skin condition, finds happiness when he inherits his grandfather's country house … and then watches vacation homes go up and block his view of the nearby lake, and reacts very badly indeed.

At times, a Schirach story can be a bit too neatly put together. "Der Taucher" ("The Diver") takes place over an Easter weekend, from Good Friday to Easter Monday services, during which a woman's life turns a full 360 degrees. I must say that the German legal system, including their version of CSI, seems to work overtime on the holiday to exhaustively investigate the case that changes the protagonist's life. It's neat, as I say, but also contrived, and lacks the weird contingency that inspires von Schirach's better tales.

The longest of the stories in Strafe is "Subotnik," one of those where the lawyer, not the criminal, is the focus. It's a "novelistic" story, tracing the life and career of Seyma, who breaks free from her overbearing Turkish father to become a high-powered defense attorney in Berlin, who lands the case of her life. But the theme of Seyma's existence seems to be "Ich habe es mir anders vorgestellt" (167) – I had imagined something different.

As in von Schirach's earlier collections Verbrechen and Schuld, many of the stories recall Maupassant; and as so often in Maupassant, there is a twist: you expect a crime to go unpunished, and it doesn't; you expect a criminal to get his or her due, and they don't. "Tennis" is a very Maupassantian story, right down to the necklace that plays a central role in its plot. Oddly for von Schirach, "Tennis" gets nowhere near a law court, though it does involve a tennis court. The pun doesn't exist in German (one is Gericht, the other Tennisplatz) but sometimes ironies can actually be gained in translation.

The volume closes on a sententious note. A character tells the narrator, here "Ferdinand von Schirach" himself, after recounting another of the faits divers that make up the three volumes: "Es gibt kein Verbrechen und keine Schuld … aber es gibt eine Strafe" (188). In this case, there was no crime and there was no guilt – but there was a punishment. Von Schirach's fictional alter ego traces his entire writing career, and thus the project for the three volumes so titled, from the realization that many events in life are like that.

Schirach, Ferdinand von. Strafe. München: Luchterhand, 2018.