Wednesday 9 April 2014

The Criminal from Lost Honour (by Friedrich Schiller) - A Review

The Criminal from Lost Honour

Location: Germany
Author: Friedrich Schiller
Publisher/Year: ?/1786
Genre: Crime
Theme: An inquiry into the nature of circumstances and psychology on crime, as evidenced by the case of a convicted poacher, rejected by society and subsequently embraced by a group of criminals

I'm quite a fan of crime writing, so it came as a surprise to me when I realised that I had never read this piece by Friedrich Schiller, an early work that makes for an interesting look at the evolution of the genre. It is classified as a novella because it was published as such, but I have also seen it classified as a 'short story,' and not without reason. It really is fairly short. But German novellas are an art form, often condensing massive stories into tiny packages, and this is no different. Just as German novellas are an art form of sorts, so is German crime fiction, and as an early example of both of these (and as something I had neglected to read in the past) this work by Schiller seemed like a must read.

This is the tale of Christian Wolf, a thrice-convicted poacher (well, convicted over the course of the story...), a man much neglected by society because of his lack of beauty and of poverty. Convicted for poaching on the word of Robert, a rival for fair Johanna's affections, he lost what little he had and went to prison. When he returned, it was to a town that shunned him more than ever, and he found himself poaching again. Eventually, on one such day he found Robert hunting in the jungle as well, and a dark instinct took Wolf over as he shot Wolf and let the cold joy of revenge take over. Wolf was convicted again. When he got out, he found himself in the midst of a band of criminals, including similar folks who had broken laws out of circumstance more than anything, who gave him the acceptance and respect he had always seeked from others. As much as his instincts told him this was wrong, it was exactly what he had searched for all his life. The tale ends when he ends up in front of a magistrate after yet another misadventure, and for once finds someone not entirely willing to judge him without fairness and honour. How this last exchange proceeds, I will not share with you.

It is a brief tale, but a strong one. Even in this day and age, the implications that social circumstance and psychology could be considered crucial factors for the mindset of criminals and their crimes be treated as such are topics of great debate. In the 18th century, when Schiller set about exploring such notions, it was not something that truly concerned the law. Schiller's writings did not just impact how crime fiction evolved, but also in many ways led to the idea of exploring criminal psychology, well before such an idea was even conceivable.

The writing style is dense and stark. It is not particularly easy to read. Indeed, it is rarely my style, which is more suited to the more poetic stylings of French prose than German starkness. I don't want to indulge in German stereotyping here, and have also read much classic German literature of a more 'elaborate' style. But this particular 'blank' style is also a dominant one in German literature over the past 250 years, increasingly so of late, and much reminds me of a more recent and intriguing look at the manner of criminals, Ferdinand von Schirach's Crime. Where von Schirach's legal background leads to stories narrated in the style of legal briefs, Schiller's 'crime reports' are more of an inquiring nature. But both (and many other German crime writings) are characterised by a very matter of fact style, conveying the most horrific of crimes in the quotidian manner of writing about one's neighbour going about one's daily routines. This strange combination of abject horror and blank writing is pretty effective, to be honest, providing a good picture of the events and the mentality of the criminals in question. In Schiller's work, it becomes clear that this is a look into how the circumstances of his life on the fringes affected his descent into the life of a criminal, and the strange acceptance he found among other such people raises the question about whether they were criminals alone or had been victims at first.

This is not an easy read, as previously mentioned. Many would question the literary merits of this barebones work after moving through more florid prose and into a new brand of 'plainspeak' in the intervening years. But it is still powerful in its premise, and for those who can stomach the style the true craft is quite visible. That said, the value of this work lies more in its philosophical premise and for the manner in which Schiller's work went on to influence crime writing and literature in general.

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