Bernhard Schlink: Self's Punishment


This is not a new book — it was first published in 1987, in Germany — but it is new to me: somebody had the brilliant idea of translating and re-issuing Shlink and Popp’s quite wonderful detective story.

The story is about a private eye with a liking for booze and fags, who has a past and a cat. With variations on the animal of choice, all PIs of popular fiction fit such a mould. But where Gerhard Self parts company with so many of his dull peers is that he holds strong opinions on many things that matter not at all.

Self smokes Sweet Aftons; when he meets a man who smokes homemade cigarettes he turns up his nose. "If there’s one thing I hate, it’s homemade cigarettes. They are way up there with crocheted modesty covers for toilet paper."

On cocktail parties: "I hate the stand-up receptions where you have to juggle cigarette, glass, and plate — really you should be fed at them." He can be sarcastic. He meets an important law professor and professes to be impressed by his "pedantic skill in arranging his sparse hair over his head".

Over lunch at McDonald’s he notices that the chairs are attached to the floor. "I was bemused; neither as an attorney, nor as a private detective, had I ever come across the offence of theft of restaurant chairs."

There is a crime, which Self sets about solving with laconic good humour in a leisurely fashion. This is his style, and the style the book is written in, so that when you amble up to the real mystery of the book — how Self’s past as a Nazi state prosecutor affects his life and what you might think about his character — you have already been lulled into love with the character.

Because it is impossible to resist a man who wanders into the wrong theatre at the multiplex, sits through On Golden Pond, and sums it up like this: "I liked all the actors but when it was over I was glad I no longer had a wife, a daughter, or some little bastard of a grandson."

This is a neat trick, and it is pulled off with ease, but it is the only trick in the book. Self is a complicated character with a complicated past — there is no moral judgment offered. You are left to do the hard work: to make up your own mind about what you think of what happened in his life in a Germany that was then another country.

* Michele Hewitson is a Herald writer

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