The Collini Case, by Ferdinand von Schirach
The facts in the Collini case are simple. Fabrizio Collini is a 63 year-old Italian man with no criminal record who has quietly worked as a master toolmaker for Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart for his entire career. One day he enters a hotel posing as a journalist to interview an 85 year-old German industrialist called Meyer. He shoots Meyer four times in the back of the head, informs the police, and then sits in the lobby waiting to be arrested.
These are the facts, which the novel relates in the opening pages. There is no question as to who did it or how he did it. The only question is why. The answer, or perhaps I should say the revelation, does not disappoint.
The writing style is clear and straightforward, but Ferdinand von Schirach knows how to tell a good story. The novel begins in medias res with the murder before introducing the protagonist, Caspar Leinen, a young lawyer who is given the Collini case as his first defence brief because Collini does not wish to defend himself. Leinen is inexperienced but highly intelligent and moral. Too late, he discovers that he personally knew the victim, that his old friend (and love interest) Johanna is Meyer’s daughter, that he cannot simply back out of the case now that he has accepted it.
His discussions with the elderly opposing lawyer, Mattinger, draw out many of the philosophical and legal subtleties of the case and Leinen’s situation. Mattinger is perhaps the most interesting figure in the novel, a man who lives in the disjunction between law and morality. If Leinen’s responses are natural, Mattinger’s often challenge the reader’s sense of right and wrong.
The limpid prose seems unemotional, but at key moments expresses itself beautifully:
Before he drove out of the gate to the grounds, he looked back once more. Seen through the melting frost of his rear-view window, Johanna was a blurred shape leaning on one of the white pillars at the entrance, looking up at the bright winter sky.
It is no surprise that von Schirach made his name as a short-story writer. The gesture of looking “back once more,” the innocence of the colour white after searching Meyer’s house for signs of guilt, the blurring of a familiar shape, all convey the complexity of Leinen’s emotions with fine economy.
The spare, unrelenting style and clockwork precision of narrative revelations focus all attention on Collini’s motive. Doubtless any reader can guess from the ages of those involved that this motive stretches back to the Nazi era. As I read it, I felt such a revelation would be insufficient. That bad things happened during those times is not exactly news. Rest assured, that is not the surprise von Schirach has in store.
When it comes, it is breathtaking, the more so because it is real. The novel caused a sensation in Germany and was a key point of reference in January 2012 for a commission set up by the Federal Minister of Justice. It is impossible to relate more without giving the game away.
The Collini Case is a short but powerful book. It can comfortably be read in an afternoon, and it will be one of the most worthwhile afternoons you spend this year.