English translation: Guilt, translated by Carol Janeway, New York: Knopf, 2012
Book review by UC Berkeley undergraduate Jennelle Mathews:
Originally published in Germany in 2010, Ferdinand von Schirach’s Guilt is a collection of short stories centered on the dimensions of guilt present in human nature. Specifically, the short stories are based in modern Germany and involve a cast of characters ranging from a neglected housewife-turned-thief to a calculating, stone-cold murderer. The topics of the outsider and allocation of blame and language all rise to the surface as noteworthy of discussion in relation to our German 160D class.
The short story “Justice” stands out for its underlying ties to questions of immigration and lack of understanding of foreign cultures. The story does not engage directly with these issues, but rather alludes to them through names and interactions between the characters. The story is set around the criminal court in the Moabit district of Berlin. A man named Turan is accused of assaulting a man with his pit bull, and the author alludes to the fact that he has trouble with the German language. After being sentenced to jail it is discovered that Turan is in fact innocent, and that he was wrongly assumed guilty: “The officer thought it must be a misspelling – that it should be Turan, not Tarun…” This is just one example of the misinformed assumptions made by the German officials (119). The quote points to a larger theme of the misconceptions that arise when interacting with those dubbed “different” or foreign. What is especially interesting is that Turan is not explicitly identified as being from outside of Germany, but his name Turan is Turkish or Iranian in origin. This name choice, coupled with clues that he has trouble understanding German paperwork, is from Neukölln (an area characterized by a high immigrant populations) and is of a lower socioeconomic status, gives the reader an image of Turan as a foreigner. The author alludes to this in the excerpt, “… he didn’t have the money. The fine was replaced by a term of imprisonment”(119). This portion of the text provided insight into the character of Turan but also into the workings of the German government.
The short story “Justice” also subtlety critiques the German judicial system, and in particular the criminal court. The narrative details the long list of missteps that led to the wrongful imprisonment of Turan, from the acceptance of vague statements by the victim and the assumption that two foreign names are just the same name misspelled, to the endless paper shuffling. Ironically, the accused has absolute faith in this flawed system, as exemplified by Turan’s remark, “It wasn’t me, the Germans are so thorough – they must know this” (119). In fact it is not until the cycle of assumptions is brought back around to the empirical facts that the mistakes are revealed. Turan, an impoverished, handicapped man with a fear of dogs, could not have been the perpetrator. Therefore, the reader is left with the impression that it is not Turan but the criminal system itself that is guilty.