Sebastian von Eschburg has a troubled childhood. Son of a mother who seems incapable of warmth and a father who is terminally depressed, he also has a condition, never quite confirmed to be synaesthesia, that means he sees colours oddly and has visual hallucinations. This condition has little relevance to anything that actually happens, but is there to give us a great big pointer that the book is ‘about’ the differences between truth, perception and reality. When he grows up, Sebastian becomes an artist who creates sleazy photographs – sorry, I mean wonderful art installations – based mainly on the sexual exploitation of naked women, which is described graphically and at length. He is unable to express emotion except through his ‘art’, but manages to form a relationship with Sofia, an admirer of his work.
The first half of the novella-length book is taken up with a tedious description of Sebastian’s early life. Despite the sometimes shocking events of his childhood, the writing style strips it of any emotion – it is full of short, staccato sentences, attempting to sound profound but failing, combined with some utterly unrealistic sounding dialogue…
“Did you know that the colours of your photographs, that sepia colour, is the ink of the squid? Many doctors prescribe it for depression, to cure loneliness and a sense of the void. They say it can heal a human being’s wounded dignity.”
I read most of this first section thinking that the book was set in either the ’30s or the ’50s, but it transpires that in fact the book is supposedly contemporary, meaning that Sebastian’s childhood must have been in the late ’80s at the earliest. This curious time displacement is not, I think, deliberate, but simply an effect of not terribly good writing. Admittedly some of the problem may rest with the translation, which is remarkably clunky considering it’s between two languages and cultures as similar as German and English. There are in fact some things which must surely be translation errors – for instance, at one point, the book mentions the “capital offences department” of the public prosecution team. As a lawyer, presumably von Schirach is aware that capital punishment was abolished in Germany decades ago, long before the period in which this book is set, but perhaps the translator is not. A case, maybe, of a literal translation of a word without paying enough attention to its cultural meaning in context.
After its lengthy and tedious preamble, the book takes a sudden turn in the second half, when Sebastian is arrested for murder, and the second half is about the trial. Difficult without spoilers, but this whole section is ridiculous – my credulity meter went off the scale within a few pages and never recovered. I simply don’t believe that any part of this can reflect the German legal system. As well as using a blunt instrument to bludgeon the reader with his point about reality and perception, we are also treated to an irrelevant rant about the morality or otherwise of torture being used on suspects during interrogation. Fair enough, except that von Schirach can’t seem to make up his mind whether he’s trying to imply that torture is routine or exceptional. Either way, the torture scene as it’s written is so incredible it’s almost laughable, and I fear the same goes for the later court scenes too.
I enjoyed von Schirach’s The Collini Case very much, but I fear this one had all of its weaknesses and none of its strengths. I’m not sure that it ever had anything profound to say about art or perception but if it had it lost it somewhere between the tedium of the first half and the sheer unbelievability of the second. A disappointment.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown.