An unusual, unsettling collection of short narratives, originally published in Germany in 2009, that blur the distinction between life and art.
Though this debut by German author von Schirach has been labeled “fiction,” the short stories derive their authority from his reputation as one of Berlin’s most prominent veteran defense attorneys. Each of these stories begins with a matter-of-fact, emotionless account of some situation leading to a crime, or at least the suspicion of one, with the unnamed narrator eventually entering to provide counsel for the accused. Are these straightforward accounts of actual cases—some never really resolved and some graphically gruesome? Do they use real-life incidents as inspiration for fictional recasting? Or are they (as at least a couple seem to be) parables or fables that illuminate the darker recesses of the human condition? While the author’s experience sheds plenty of light on the legal system—at least the German legal system, with small but significant differences from its American counterpart—the narrative tone is closer to Kafka than to Grisham or Turow. Perhaps the strangest story here is “Self-Defense,” in which a seemingly innocuous man viciously kills two thugs who have attempted to mug him. After arrest, he refuses to speak or to otherwise reveal anything about his identity or nationality. Even his clothes have been stripped of their labels. Was his lethal response permissible in self-defense? Was he also responsible for another killing, for which he was never charged? Who is he? Who arranged for his defense? The conventions of mystery fiction, which demand that plot strands must be tied together with a resolution, remain unsatisfied here and in many of the other stories. From the perspective of this particular defense attorney, matters such as “truth,” “innocence” and “justifiable” are more complex than generally considered, perhaps even unknowable.
Thinly veiled memoir or literary gamesmanship? You be the judge.