Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Collini Case

by Ferdinand von Schirach
Translated by Anthea Bell
Viking   2013
187 pages     Fiction

It has been more than 75 years since Hitler began his march across Europe, but the repercussions of World War II continue to resonate in current literature. In the brief novel, The Collini Case, German lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach tells the story of a murder and court case based on a case that actually was prosecuted in Berlin quite recently. 

The Collini Case is a very spare story dealing with only one thing, the murder of German businessman Hans Meyer by an Italian Fabrizio Collini. Caspar Leinen is a young defense attorney whose name has been drawn to take on a public defender case. It will be his first big case. He quickly learns two things: first, Collini has admitted to killing Meyer in a particularly gruesome way and he doesn't want to reveal the motive to his defense lawyer; second, Meyer, the victim, was Leinen's long-time friend and mentor. Leinen tries to remove himself as the defense attoroney, but he is advised by another lawyer that he must remain on the case for the sake of his future career and the case's political significance. As Leinen begins to unravel the circumstances that led to the murder, he uncovers yet another ramification of the ethics of Nazism and its continuing hold on the German population. 

Because it is so spare, the interest of the reader is not deflected from the ethical dilemma the author is presenting. The love affair between Leinen and Meyer's granddaughter, Johanna, is only included as another indication of how the heritage of the Nazis continues to play itself out in current German life. I once edited a psychology PhD dissertation that had a profound effect on me. The thesis of the dissertation was that trauma that happens in one generation continues to play itself out in families for many generations to come. The author of the dissertation was speaking particularly of  family members affected by the Holocaust, but in The Collini Case, we see the effects of the trauma on the lives of modern day Germans. It is sobering to think about. What it means, of course, is that war continues to affect peoples and countries for many generations; that we in the United States continue to be affected by the wars of our parents and grandparents. The point is made eloquently by Johanna at the end of the book when she asks Leinen, "Am I all those things too?" He responds, "You're who you are," meaning that we are the sum of our heritage as well as our own beings.

The Toronto Star review mentions that the book became a sensation when it was published and was cited as one of the reasons that the German Federal Minister of Justice appointed a commission to look into how crimes related to the Nazi regime are prosecuted. The author is a famous German lawyer and he has written a couple of collections of short stories that are very popular in Germany. I particularly appreciated his writing style and the lack of extraneous detail. The Toronto Star reviewer makes this point: "Von Schirach is not interested in creating, maintaining and releasing tension in the reader, not interested in performing an entertainment. His focus is entirely on the upheavals in his characters. By highlighting only what actually takes place and rarely giving us a glimpse into their emotional state, or indeed even contextualizing the city, the politics, or the time in which the story takes place, he forces us to confront the ethics of everyday actions. Not just scandalous political cases."

The Collini Case can be read in a couple of hours but the impact of the story will stay with the reader for days. It is well worth reading. Written in German, it is just being released for the American market on August 5. It is skillfully translated by Anthea Bell. 

No comments: