While German writer Ferdinand von Schirach's Guilt has a very elegant and symbolically sharp cover, I'm more interested in judging the book by its epigraph—or at least starting there. In a minimalist gesture that opens 15 unnerving short stories investigating graphic brutality, the author quotes Aristotle: "Things are as they are." And that's it.
Written by a criminal defense lawyer, the collection—which boldly examines the obfuscated line between good and evil, moral justice, and legal justice—opens that concisely. And then it launches at a breakneck speed into tales so gritty and alarmingly grotesque that they make “Law & Order” look like pleasant bedtime story fodder.
I can't go without mentioning how von Schirach's opening device compares to those writer David Simon employed on "The Wire." Each of Simon's episodes was introduced with a brief quote from one of its characters. Take, for example, the badass-but-ethically-prone professional criminal Omar Little saying, "All in the game.” That would work as a fitting substitute epigraph for Guilt.
This message is evidenced ironically in a story like "Snow," about an old man who's letting heroin dealers use his apartment as a base of operations. Of the main character ("protagonist" is never a word to be used in reference to Guilt's players), von Schirach writes, "he sank into a world of schnapps, petty crime and social security. He didn't want anything else. He was just waiting for the end." The old man’s indifference to his own mortality leads him to take the fall for one of the dealers because he thinks it will help a young family. But in the end, a seemingly altruistic gesture just contributes to more violence.
This is a recurring theme in the book: Our intentions, and the systems that judge the outcome of our intentions, are often at odds with the weight of those outcomes. In other words, while the writer doesn't shirk the idea of willpower, he makes a convincing case that there are much larger, more unpredictable factors at play than choice.
In addition to that bleakness, Guilt is reminiscent of Raymond Carver's work in that the writing is unflinchingly terse, and it carries a quality of open-minded empathy for both perpetrators and victims. That’s one of von Schirach's more remarkable skills—his ability to not always separate those two groups. His depictions are not in black and white but rather a perpetual sliding scale of moral gray tones. And this extends to the narrator's character himself, who continually recurs as a defense attorney after he's laid out the bare bones of each of his cases.
This muddled personal morality is most evident in Guilt's opener, "Funfair," which is perhaps the most nauseating piece in the collection. The premise is that a group of men in a polka band who lead normal lives in a peaceful little town rape a teenage beer maid in a gazebo after they've had one too many at a holiday festival. After describing the scene and providing subjective insights as to what may have gone on in the characters' heads, the narrator pops up as a young lawyer for the rapists. Because evidence has been mishandled, a “guilty” verdict is impossible, and the narrator becomes complicit in unspeakable evil. He reflects on it as he and another defense attorney depart from their legal victory. "We remained silent as we sat in the train," von Schirach writes. "We had grown up, and when we got out, we knew that things would never be simple again."
That's how the story ends. In fact, all of Guilt's tales end with that staple of unapologetic brevity that Carver used so effectively in shorts like "Popular Mechanics."
On the subject of Carver-esque endings, how about this one: "No one ever found out where the gun came from. He shot her in the heart and himself in the temple. ... They hadn't wanted to do it in the apartment; they'd painted the walls only two months before." I mean, Jesus—that’s grim.
But von Schirach excels at painting starkly honest portrayals of what society deems criminal behavior. Sometimes he depicts how the disconnect between moral and legal justice works for the better, sometimes for the worse. If there's one thing that stands out as biased in von Schirach's grim case studies, it’s that he doesn't seem that interested in “the better."