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by Ferdinand von Schirach and Anthea Bell, trans.
Viking, August 2013
187 pages
ISBN: 0670026522

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In addition to being the author of two highly regarded collections of short stories, Ferdinand von Schirach is a successful defence attorney in Germany and the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, onetime head of the Hitlerjugend, later the Nazi governor of Vienna, who served twenty years for crimes against humanity. It is a family history that lends a particular poignancy to this brief and compelling novel.

Berlin's Hotel Adlon has been the scene of some extraordinary events, both historical and fictional. Here, Fabrizio Collini, an elderly man, presents himself as a journalist to the occupant of one of the Adlon's luxurious rooms, Jean-Baptiste Meyer, a prominent industrialist. Once in the room, he says nothing, but shoots Meyer four times in the back of the head. When he is satisfied that Meyer is dead, he turns him over and grinds his heel into his face again and again. He then waits for the police. He refuses to explain why he committed murder. Indeed, he says next to nothing.

For Caspar Leinen, who was called to the bar less than two months earlier, the case is a nightmare. It is, after all, his first, and one that has attracted national attention because of the status of the victim. His client will explain to no one, not even his attorney, his reasons for what he undoubtedly did. And things rapidly get even worse. Leinen discovers, too late, that he knew the deceased and knew him well. He was the grandfather of a boyhood friend, now dead, and Leinen loves that friend's elder sister Johanna Meyer, who pleads with him to abandon the defence. To top it all off, a older lawyer for whom Leinen has immense respect, a man who specializes in difficult defences (Baader-Meinhof among them), has agreed to act as accessory prosecutor this time on Joanna's behalf.

Were it not for the fact that the trial had to be unexpectedly interrupted due to the illness of one of the judges, it would have been briskly concluded and Leinen would have lost. Instead, he has an extra ten days to pursue a line of inquiry that, if successful, might well mean that Collini could be discharged.

All at once, the novel becomes a meditation on the law, a discussion of the difference between judicial guilt and moral culpability.

It all unfolds in von Schirach's characteristically spare prose (admirably translated by Anthea Bell), prose that he could have written with an icicle. He uses fewer adjectives than Hemingway, resolutely refusing to impose emotions on the reader. Although the spectre of the Nazi past broods over this book, it is not about then, but about now. In an article in Der Spiegel, written a couple of years ago when the book was first published in German, von Schirach maintains he is more interested in the present than in his grandfather and his generation. THE COLLINI CASE is, therefore, "a book about the crimes committed in our state, about vengeance, guilt and the things we continue to fail at even today."

Nevertheless, the things we do today have a history. The law in any country is a complex historical document and the past it embeds continually reaches out its cold fingers to touch the present. A note at the end of the book informs us that this novel was a point of reference for an public inquiry into the mark left on the German Ministry of Justice by the Nazi past. A plot summary of THE COLLINI CASE could pretty much serve as an outline for a John Grisham novel - conflicted lawyer, impossible case, detailed courtroom scenes, dramatic finale. But the impact of its 180 pages in which not a word is wasted is far greater than any legal thriller treble its size. And the importance of the ideas and the meticulously unemotional prose notwithstanding, it is a book that both fascinates and moves.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, August 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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