I read Justiz for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life. I was supposed to write this post way earlier, but as usual, stuff got into the way. Luckily, Lizzy has decided to extend the month, so I’m still sort of on time.
Anyway, Dürrenmatt is one of my favourite German-language writers and I enjoy both his novels and plays. Among other things, Dürrenmatt had a penchant for crime, but in a way that is quite different from your average whodunnit lit. Some of you may be familiar with the film adaptation of Das Versprechen, The Pledge (2001) directed by Sean Penn, where a policeman makes a promise to a mother find out who killed her little girl. He resorts to unconventional methods to find the murderer and eventually goes insane over the case. I haven’t seen the film but highly recommend the book. I also highly recommend Der Richter und sein Henker and, as a play, Die Physiker (The Physicists). Basically, in my view, you can’t go wrong with a Dürrenmatt.
It had been a while since my last Dürrenmatt, and as always with high expectations, I was a bit worried Justiz wouldn’t match up to them. I needn’t have worried though, as I immensely enjoyed reading it. So, having fangirled for a while here, on to Justiz.
Again, this is not your average crime novel. The protagonist is a young lawyer, Spät, who is trying to shape his professional reputation and takes on a strange case that will eventually represent his downfall, the story of which he chronicles in the notes that make up the first two parts of the novel. He is contracted by Kantonsrat Isaac Kohler, who has shot a professor before the eyes of dozens of onlookers at a full restaurant. Nobody understands why, he didn’t have a motive, and of course, why do it in public for everyone to see?
Things become a bit clearer for the reader (but not for the characters in Justiz) when he contracts Spät with the mandate of reopening the investigation of his case under the assumption that he is innocent. And indeed, Spät is unable to convincingly demonstrate that Kohler is indeedguilty. Witnesses contradict each other, evidence has disappeared, and suddenly a potential killer with a motive turns up – who just happens to be someone Kantonsrat Kohler has some beef with.
In Justiz (Justice) Dürrenmatt plays with the perversions of the judicial system in a masterful way. He also reiterates one of his favourite themes, an investigator becoming drawn deeper and deeper into a case that will change his life and lead to his eventual downfall – of which we learn in the third part of the book, written by an author who wants to publish Spät’s memoirs. All this time, Spät has been a puppet in Kohler’s play, and while he does realise this, he is unable to detach himself from the case. Kohler is eventually pardoned because of the results of Spät’s investigation – but Spät knows Kohler is guilty and the fact that he is responsible for the freeing of a murderer and the suicide of an innocent person is more than he can handle.
I loved how Dürrenmatt set this up – from the beginning, you know that Spät will take on the investigation and that it will ruin him, but you also know that it is inevitable (a word of warning, this makes the novel not suitable for anyone who can’t deal with fatalism). What I enjoyed even more was the way he exposes the justice system; it is malleable and filled with incompetent bureaucrats, at the disposal of a highly intelligent manipulator who knows how to work it to his advantage and exploits his charisma to work everyone else like puppets.
Above all else, Justiz is full of Dürrenmatt’s ironic but highly incisive observations on the society that surrounds his characters, and that I find immensely enjoyable. While he is referring explicitly to the Swiss society at the time of his writing, and some aspects do refer to alpine peculiarities, others are equally applicable to a wider societal spectrum, turning Justiz into a highly valid piece of literature. Personally, I liked being stimulated to reflect on the judicial system I know, which, to be honest, is not a subject I usually devote too much thought to. To me, Dürrenmatt is the sort of grumpy, slightly misanthropic but very sharp old man who complains a lot but does so in such a clever and entertaining fashion that you will actually consider his points.
English title: The Execution of Justice
Spanish title: Justicia
This book was also on my reading list for The Classics Club.