Punishment is a delight. The lightness of phrase, the floating of words, the strange yet highly charged calmness, and atmosphere of the unique legal language that connects ordinary people with the well-educated legal profession and makes the complex themes easy to understand. The way that translator Kat Hall brings the potential complicated German concepts to English, thus proving that she has not only talent for the context, nature and music of the language but also that she is best placed to work with the author. Her translation of von Schirach’s gripping prose is crisp and precise, and a joy to read.
Punishment is also a nightmare of loneliness, alienation, misunderstanding, desire to serve justice, and finding a way in the morally-skewed world. Redemption and revenge. Making choices and facing consequences. A man who values silence is driven to murder by his noisy neighbours. A cheated wife wanting revenge. People who feel no remorse and are not sorry. People who resign themselves to ‘fate’. They did what they had to do or so they thought…
All twelve compelling short stories seem unique. They are connected by the main character called Schlesinger, counsel for the defence who used to be a brilliant criminal lawyer but ‘had long since viewed himself as a ruin of a man’, even if his brain remains sharp (occasionally). Or does it? ‘He made a living from small cases – neighbourhood disputes, pub brawls and drug offences. His clients were street dealers who swallowed the little bags of heroin they had stashed in their mouths when the police came after them.’ Eleven stories made my brain wake up and enjoy the themes though of course I would have never wished to be in position of the main players. One story about sex-trafficking destroyed me. On one level I wished I have never read it, on another – I was so impressed by the reserved method of showing the incomprehensible cruelty of the world which is still there, and could affect anyone when power changes hands. I will not divulge anything more about Subbotnik which had such a huge impact on me and although I could not get images out of my head, I would recommend that readers absorb every word. The title taken from Russian ‘tradition’ has a different meaning here. I know you are getting curious.
Reading Punishment reminded me of another short story collection: An Elderley Lady is Up to No Good (Soho Press). The tone seems to be similar, intelligent and seemingly light; however, I don’t think the Swedish writer Helene Torsten based her stories on real life experience. But I can’t be sure. Here the author Ferdinand von Schirach makes no secrets about source of his inspiration. He was born in Munich, lives in Berlin now, and worked as a criminal defence lawyer for twenty years. He drew motives and situations from his professional career and created suspenseful tales precariously balancing between fiction and truth, and meandering between various legal paths which do not always help the victim. Legal loopholes exist in each system, in every country, and surviving difficulties in life means in real terms that it is the money that often takes precedence over fairness.
The bleakness of the crimes does not mean that moments of dark stoic humour and real compassion cannot coexist in this collection. Ferdinand von Schirach writes with passion and empathy, and I will definitely reach for his previous books. Here you can listen to the translator Katharina Hall reading from von Schirach’s Punishment, published by Baskerville in August 2022.