Friday, October 7, 2011

Self's Deception, by Bernhard Schlink

This is the second of three (to date) novels featuring private investigator Gerhard Self. It's no surprise that Bernhard Schlink, author of The Reader, would give us an introspective, brooding detective.

Self, hired to locate a missing young woman, quickly falls into a tangled web of misinformation. His employer is not who he claims to be. The police are also seeking the young woman, but they won't say why. An alleged attack on a US military base in one location actually happened at a different base, and there may or may not have been old stockpiles of poison gas involved. Even the political radicals have capitalist motives. Self isn't the only one deceived and deceiving; as the cover suggests, it's hard to tell up from down.

Bernhard Schlink, when he's not writing novels, is writing legal briefs. He enjoyed his tenure as a judge, he mentioned in an interview with The Guardian, because judges, unlike philosophers, cannot sit and ponder the facts indefinitely. They must reach a decision; there must be closure. And so it is with Self's Deception: Schlink throws a heap of conflicting facts onto his detective's desk, and Self must work through them, determine as best he can what is true and what's not, come to a conclusion, and then hope he was correct. Self-examination is a necessary part of the process for Self. I don't think many American detectives are as introspective.

I confess, I'm still a novice when it comes to crime novels, but one can't help but notice that most fictional detectives are walking cardiac arrests. They drink, they smoke, they eat unwholesome food. Couldn't someone give us a detective who drinks green tea, snacks on hummus and meditates?  Or would that be completely implausible?  Here's how Self starts his day:

I opened my desk drawer and took out a box of coffee beans, a bottle of sambuca, and a glass, and filled it. Then I sat down in my chair, cracked the beans between my teeth, and let the clear, oily sambuca roll over my tongue and down my throat. It burned, and the smoke of my first cigarette stung my chest.

The cigarette, by the way, is an unfiltered Sweet Afton. No detective worth his salt would bother about filters, right? Somewhere it's also written in stone that fictional detectives must be single -- widowed, divorced, or at least fending off a potential marriage partner -- and should be living alone with a pet. Self lives with Turbo, the tomcat, and resists the advances of Brigitte, who would quite possibly feed him (and his cat) a healthier diet.
My usual waiter Giovanni was on vacation in Italy, and the spaghetti gorgonzola was too heavy. My girlfriend, Brigitte, could have made me a better meal. But the previous weekend she'd seemed a little too hopeful that I might learn to let her spoil me: “Will you be my cuddly old tomcat?” I don't want to become some old tomcat.

Self is a captivating character, even if he doesn't want to be Brigitte's old tomcat, and his reflections on Germany's wartime past and on murder in general are thought-provoking. Someone suggests to him that a psychiatrist may have been killed as part of a robbery. Self thinks not.
People don't murder simply for money. In fact, they murder for one reason, and one reason only: to save their life's illusions. There's the one who murders out of jealousy: If my beloved is dead, she's mine and nobody can take her away from me, not a lover, not she herself. There's the one who kills as a professional: He knows no trade, is nothing, but wants to hold his own in a world in which professional success makes the man. Tyrants murder because they want to be greater than they are and are murdered in turn because somebody wants the world to be a better place than it is. There is collective murder for collective illusions -- the history of the twentieth century is riddled with it. Then of course there is also murder sparked by greed. But its aim is not to gather and hoard money: It, too, aims to salvage dreams of greatness and eminence.

This, I think, is a somewhat noble vision of murder -- I can't find a space in this picture for, say, the addict who kills out of desperation to fill his next syringe -- but then, Self is a noble man. He grows frustrated with a young witness who answers him in mumbles and monosyllables: "I simply can't keep up with the ways of the young. Is this modern tongue-tiedness? Modern introversion? Verbal anorexia?"  

Self often shares information with a police inspector whom he has known for years. In this book, the two men find themselves at odds and, in her attempt to bring them back into amity, the policeman's wife suggests that they begin to address each other informally. German has both formal and informal pronouns, and it struck me that these two men, having known each other for so long, might still be using the formal ones. Maybe this, too, is changing. Perhaps Germans are growing more casual with their speech and manners. I suppose Self is not so different from all of us grumpy, old, nostalgic people who suspect the world is going to hell in a handbasket. 

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