By OLEN STEINHAUER
Published: January 21, 2011
In the preface to this mesmerizing story collection, Ferdinand von Schirach recalls his uncle, a judge who lost his left arm and right hand in World War II. The uncle, he tells us, began his own stories by stating, “Most things are complicated, and guilt always presents a bit of a problem.” This line also began his suicide letter.
Illustration by Jens Bonnke
By Ferdinand von Schirach
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
188 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $25.
To say that Germans and guilt have a special relationship would be to dive into the deep end of platitude, but in von Schirach’s case it’s difficult not to ...view middle of the document...
He presents only the facts he has access to, leaving u to our imagination. “The Germans no longer tolerate pathos,” he explains in one story. “There’s been too much of that already.”
Within this framework, von Schirach still has the talent to dazzle, particularly when it comes to his character sketches. In “Tanata’s Tea Bowl,” the story of a bumbling robbery and the wrath it provokes, we meet a side character, Pocol, and in a single paragraph are given the full scope of his foul nature through an outline of his relationship with his girlfriend, a vignette that moves swiftly from interesting to grotesque and finally to gut-wrenching. As the reader is catching his breath, the tale moves quietly forward. Pocol is one of many characters — an anonymous murderer in “Self-Defense,” an ingenious Lebanese man in “The Hedgehog,” a gentle wife-killer in “Fähner” — who stick with you long after you’ve closed the book.
Even with such a cast of characters, the stories could easily fall flat were it not for the voice that brings them to life. Short on dialogue, it nevertheless feels conversational, as if von Schirach were an upright, slightly formal man sitting next to you at a bar, filling you in on the details of his professional life. Remembering that you’re American, this stranger even takes you through the formalities of the German legal system to make sure everything is clear. The man cradling a drink beside you knows he needn’t embellish his stories because the facts themselves will suffice. (In “Self-Defense,” for example, von Shirach writes of a thug about to get his comeuppance: “Lenzberger had only four convictions on his sheet,...