Ferdinand von Schirach’s succinct and deceptively easily readable novel blends crime genre tropes with arthouse experimentalism; if Scott Turow had rewritten Last Year at Marienbad to include some courtroom shenanigans, this would be it. Although structured in four parts, each featuring a colour as a leitmotif, it’s essentially a narrative of two halves. The first documents the troubled life of artist Sebastian von Eschburg in a dark, occasionally absurd, and thoroughly unreliable manner. There are so many lacunae that sometimes it seems like you’re potholing instead of reading. The waters are further muddied by Eschburg’s emotional detachment and synaesthesia – the novel uses the condition to a narrative purpose unequalled since Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.
The second half is from the perspective of Konrad Biegler, a defence lawyer so grumpy, so portly and so henpecked that he makes Rumpole of the Bailey look like Dirty Harry. Biegler races (or rather waddles) against time to make sense of the case – which involves a shedload of circumstantial evidence but no actual body – with the assistance of Eschburg’s glamorous partner Sofia. As the trial date approaches, Schirach first tinkers with then outright subverts his readers’ expectations.
The artworks and installations that make Eschburg famous are based on Goya’s The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, Sir Francis Galton’s multiple photographic exposure of the faces of criminals, and Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “mechanical Turk”. Not mentioned in the novel, but a tempting correlation, is the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Poetry Machine installation, a sort of random poetry generator that became a bete noire of the German literature scene a decade and a half ago. Similarly, Schirach’s novel reads in places like a randomly generated thriller, as he gleefully throws everything from hidden family secrets to the sudden reappearance of long lost siblings into the pot, seasons with east European hookers, and simmers over the hyperbole of torture porn imagery.
All of which, done purely for its own sake, would pretty much guarantee a cynically entertaining read. However, Schirach assembles all his pieces (including several rugs that don’t remain under the reader for very long) in the service of two thorny questions: what the relationship is between reality and truth; and, as Eschburg asks outright at a crucial moment, “what is guilt?” Omitted from Schirach’s author’s back cover biographical note is the fact that his grandfather was Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, an awkward bit of family history which nonetheless offers perspective from which to ponder that question.