June 05, 2014


The Collini Case. By Ferdinand von Schirach. Translated by Anthea Bell. Penguin. $15.

     A short, meticulously plotted and coolly narrated mystery, Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case will primarily be of interest to readers who want to learn some of the intricacies of German law as it relates to the Nazi era. If that seems like a rarefied group, it should – the novel (really more of a novella) is strongly bound to its country of origin and the time frame surrounding its events, with tie-ins that extend beyond the fictional story but will seem abstruse to most non-German readers. For example, the author is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach (1907-1974), onetime head of the Hitler Youth organization and Reichsstatthalter ("Reich Governor") of Vienna, who was convicted at Nuremberg of crimes against humanity and served 20 years in Berlin’s Spandau Prison. The author himself is a criminal lawyer and has even discussed ways in which his family’s past affected the writing of this book, his first novel (he has also written two story collections).

     Even without knowledge of Ferdinand von Schirach’s background, the direction in which the book will clearly point is obvious from the start. This is no whodunit: Fabrizio Collini, a 67-year-old retiree from Daimler AG’s Stuttgart Mercedes plant, walks into a Berlin hotel, posing as a journalist, shoots a prominent 85-year-old industrialist named Hans Meyer to death, then mutilates the corpse. The men’s ages make it clear that Collini’s motive will somehow involve World War II, but the killer steadfastly (and not entirely logically) refuses to divulge his reasons for what he has done. That leaves the “whydunit” to be deciphered by his defense attorney, Casper Leinen, who is newly qualified as a lawyer and is appointed to the case.

     Leinen’s opposite number, Richard Mattinger, is far more experienced and knowledgeable, and becomes a mentor to the young lawyer as well as an adversary. Neither man ever comes alive as a character, nor do Collini and Meyer – they are instruments through which von Schirach tells a story rather than compelling, individuated people. Indeed, the book as a whole is a cool, intellectual exercise, for all the emotions that elements of it will likely dredge up, at least for those familiar with German law in the years after World War II. Von Schirach’s attempt to humanize Leinen by having him discover a personal connection to Collini seems forced and is not really germane to the plot.

     One of the best things here is von Schirach’s refusal to overdo the dramatization of the climactic courtroom scenes. The careful, matter-of-fact presentation of legal matters that involve decisions on what constitutes an atrocity and what does not, which could easily become the stuff of melodrama, appears here with a detachment and distancing that pull the reader into the minutiae of the case with something of the same methodical digging that Leinen exhibits. However, the palpable lack of outrage, and the systematic (and systemic) desensitization implied by the dearth of emotional involvement, will likely be hard for readers unfamiliar with or uninterested in the intricacies of German law to accept. The book’s inconclusive conclusion is a perfectly sensible one; but, again, it may prove unsatisfactory for readers used to more-definitive endings. Even when well translated in terms of language, as The Collini Case appears to be, the book does not translate particularly well in terms of its relevance to non-German, or perhaps non-European, readers – that is, to readers for whom World War II and its physical, moral, ethical and legal consequences have not been felt with the direct impact that they have for von Schirach.

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