Ferdinand von Schirach: Tabu (2013) – The Girl Who Wasn’t There (2015)


I bought Ferdinand von Schirach’s last novel The Girl Who Wasn’t There  –  Tabu (Taboo) when it came out in German, but didn’t feel like reading it until now. Meanwhile it’s available in translation and I’ve seen a few reviews on English blogs.

Since I liked his first books  Crime – Verbrechen, Guilt – Schuld, and The Collini Case – Der Fall Collini I was looking forward to The Girl Who Wasn’t There. I didn’t expect a crime novel per se, as von Schirach, even when he writes about crime, is more interested in justice and human dignity than crime-solving or reasons for committing a crime. He recently published a book of essays, which all circle around the idea of human dignity. No surprise then that Tabu wasn’t a “proper” crime novel. So, that’s not the problem I had with this book. My biggest problem was the style and that I felt he didn’t really have a story, only themes he wanted to explore.

Interestingly the reception in English-speaking countries – by professional critics and bloggers – is far more favourable than the reception in Germany. Could it be that the translation improved the text? I don’t think that’s the reason but you never know.

I like spare prose and it served von Schirach well in his first two story collections. His prose was still quite alright in The Collini Case, but it drove me up the wall in this novel. The prose isn’t only spare but clumsy. His overuse of parataxis and short main clauses just didn’t feel right. Parataxis is often used to convey a feeling of alienation. Of course, if a character, like the main character Sebastian von Eshburg, feels dead inside because his father committed suicide when he was only a kid – there must be a feeling of alienation, nonetheless, I would have hoped von Schirach would have tried to convey it in another way.

The book is divided into several parts; each has a color as its title. The longest parts tell about von Eschburg’s childhood and how he became a famous artist. Then we see a man being questioned and threatened by a police man. The next part has another narrator – defence lawyer Biegler. That part is much more lively. Biegler is a lusty, driven man. An interesting character. He accepts to defend von Eschburg, who is accused of murder, because he suspects von Eschburg has confessed a crime he might not have committed. The last parts are dedicated to the trial and its outcome.

Overall I didn’t care for this book. I’m familiar with von Schirach’s themes by now and I found the essay collection more interesting than this novel. The style, as I said, is annoying in German. Nonetheless there were parts I liked. Biegler’s chapter is great because Biegler is a great character. I also enjoyed reading about von Eschburg’s childhood because the setting von Schirach chose – the Swiss Graubünden region – brought back childhood memories.

Unfortunately I can’t say this is a must read. It has interesting elements but that wasn’t enough for me. Since some of the main topics are important – violence, the representation of sex and violence in art, sex trafficking, torture – it could still be a good choice for a book group.

A last comment on the title. The German title refers to the main theme, while the English title refers to the alleged crime.

The Girl Who Wasn't There

29 thoughts on “Ferdinand von Schirach: Tabu (2013) – The Girl Who Wasn’t There (2015)

  1. Ah, interesting comparison! I didn’t read it in the original German, so I do wonder if the spare style works better in English than in German? I did like the childhood chapters especially (but wonder if I too was influenced more by the setting).

    • Obviously being a native German/French speaker, I’m more attentive when something has been written in one of my native languages. German is much poorer when it comes to vocabulary than any other language. The complexity of German lies in the grammar, the sentence structure, the combination of words, all of which are missing here. It felt poor.
      Yes, the setting. I love the setting. Just mentioning the via mala will paint a picture in my head – a picture von Schirach didn’t even paint.

  2. Very insightful review as always Caroline. I liked the way that you analyzed and commented upon the wring style. I also learned something about parataxis.

    Curious how this was more popular outside of Germany then inside of it.

    • The style really didn’t do it for me. It was monotonous, to say the least. And the story felt too artificial.
      I just notced that the British newspapers wrote favourably, while the German newspapers – some at least – wnet as far as saying it was really bad.

  3. I have liked all his previous stuff (some of it very much) so a pity to hear this isn’t up to the same standard (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the novelty has worn off?). Still enough in what you say to tempt me to try it though. I can think of a few other writers where the – not repetition maybe, but lack of stretch – becomes an issue. David Vann is one that springs to mind.

    • I’d be interested to hear what you think. There’s that novelty aspect to factor in. What was great at first has become a bit overused. Some style variation would have been good. This was the first of his books that made me wonder whether the style is really a choice or wther he’s just not able to write any other way.
      The last third was actually quite good. Biegler is a great character. Not exactly likable but interesting.

  4. Very interesting to read your comments about the language …..usually I think reading a book in translation is the least preferable option but maybe not in this case . Interestingly I bought my boss The Collini Case in our ‘secret Santa ‘ at Xmas so will be interesting to hear what he thinks !

    • I liked The Collini Case a lot. Marina Sofia and Lizzy liked this one better.
      I have no idea if it sound better in English but it could. Usually I agree with you . I prefer the original.

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline. Sorry to know that you didn’t like Schirach’s latest book as much as you had hoped to. Sorry to know that the spare prose style didn’t work in this book. Sometimes authors ignore the story and try to sneak in their favourite themes into their novels, and though it is wonderful to read their thoughts on those themes, without a solid story to back it up, it all goes up in smoke most of the time. Sorry to know that Schirach didn’t focus more on the story. I loved your description of Biegler’s chapter. If I read the book, it might be because of that.

    • Thanks, Vishy. Biegler is a great character. He always speaks his mind. It’s not necessarily nice what he’s saying but very honest.
      I think you may be on to something here. It did really feel like he tried to sneak in his favourite themes without having all that much of a story. Of course, brilliant character studys are great as well but I found von Eschburg anything but believable. He was too much of a writer’s brainchild.

  6. At the time I read, and I have to say enjoyed, The Collini Case I liked the character of the lawyer much more than Collini himself. Even with that book though I thought the story was on the thin side – when I’d read the blurb at the time of buying it I felt it promised a little more than it actually delivered!

    • That’s the same here. The blurb pretends it’s about something that nly takes up the last couple of pages.
      Some poeple still liked this better than The Collini Case.

  7. Awww, what a shame. I really liked “Verbrechen” and “Der Fall Collini”, so when I saw he had a new one out, I got excited. But maybe he has run his course? If “Tabu” feels repetitive and like he’s overplaying his hand with the style, maybe he has just run out of steam. By the way, have you been watching the TV series they made out of “Schuld”? I could only bring myself to watch the first one. I just don’t care for Moritz Bleibtreu 😉

    • No, I haven’t watched it. Is Moritz Bleibtreu the lawyer?
      Von Schirach did run out of steam, I would say. And of topics. Maybe if you pick it up anyway, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

    • There are so many great German writers who will never be translated out there that it feels unfair to praise someone who writes the same kind of book again and again.Ad he just doesn’t compare well to contemporary German literature as a whole. From a UK/US persepctive it must still feel fresh as it’s very different from a typical American novel. That’s the only explanation I have.

  8. It’s interesting to read about your experience with this one (and about the different reactions in Germany vs English-speaking countries). I wish I had something else to add, but he’s not an author I’m terribly familiar with. I’ve heard of the Collini Case but never read it.

    • I’m behind in blog reading. I had the flu. These notification thing happens sometimes that’s why I perfer Bloglovin.
      It is a shame the book wasn’t better.

  9. Too bad this one didn’t work for you–I have noted him down but haven’t yet gotten around to reading him. Are all his books slightly different or is his style beginning to change?

    • The style is always pretty much the same but it didn’t work in this book. It worked very well in the first two books. I think you’d like him. Even the first novel is very good.

    • No I didn’t. I’m glad I save you a new addition to your TBR. If you find out you’re a hige fan of his earlier books you might always read it at a later date.

  10. Pingback: #GermanLitMonth: Three Crime Novels – a hot cup of pleasure

    • It’s not his best, that’s for sure. Not much better, no, but thanks. I did ask Lizzy about the comment/link. There’s a problem with the website she can’t fix right now. She said you can use tinyurl.com to shrink it. I’ll visit as soon as I can.

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