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BOOK REVIEW : A Society Sinks in Its Corruption

January 15, 1990|URSULA HEGI | Hegi is the author of "Intrusions and Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories." She teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Eastern Washington University. and

The Execution of Justice by Friedrich Durrenmatt; translated by John E. Woods (Random House: $17.95; 216 pages).

Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt, whose novels and plays have earned him international acclaim, has a gift for sharp and ironic observation of society, especially when it turns on itself and ceases to function.

In "The Execution of Justice," his sarcasm is aimed at the judicial system. Crime becomes a reflection of the political and social climate, a cancer that arises from distorted values, from numbness and justification.

"The Execution of Justice," written over a span of 28 years, was first published in 1985 in Zurich under the title "Justiz" ("Justice"). It begins with a voice that's charged with tension, a voice that belongs to Spat, a bright but poor attorney who is seduced into representing a powerful man who has killed and claims that he has no reason for his crime.

Durrenmatt focuses more on politics than on the characters who play bizarre roles in the machinery of Swiss justice. He is highly critical of his country that "withdrew from history when it went into big business. . . . Our country's ideals were always practical ones . . . an immoral but healthy way of life." He looks at pompous manners and traditions, at corruption so smooth that it has worked its way into everyday life.

Yet, in his disturbing observation of the struggle between law and justice, Durrenmatt touches on flaws in the legal system in a much more global way. Rules have become more important than the transgressions for which the rules were once set up. Questions about the nature of justice abound throughout the novel. Is justice a "private matter? . . . and why justice? For society in general?"

Durrenmatt always has been drawn to the detective novel, and "The Execution of Justice" carries the suspense of a detective novel as it explores a crime performed at a Zurich restaurant. Dr. Isaak Kohler tells his chauffeur to wait outside the restaurant, walks in, greets Prof. Winter "amicably" and shoots him in front of many witnesses.

No motive is found, and Kohler is sentenced to 20 years. He accepts the verdict with dignity and adjusts to the soft prison life, studying Esperanto and beekeeping. The warden considers him "either a saint or a devil."

Kohler convinces the reluctant Spat to reinvestigate the case "under the presumption that (he) was not the murderer . . . to create a fiction, nothing more." He meets the young lawyer's confusion by assuring him that he is not "supposed to investigate reality . . . but rather one of the possibilities behind the reality."

As the murder is reinvestigated, the act of violence is removed from theory, and only the theory is dealt with--a clean, passionless residue that has less and less to do with the crime. And this is what happens to justice too--it becomes detached from its source, loses its reason for being and exhausts itself in a game.

Spat finally surmises the motive for the murder, the seduction of the game, the "calculation and the execution, the possibility each game presented . . . to play not just with balls but with human beings . . . equating himself with God." He is certain that Kohler is a murderer and that his "motive was too abstract for our system of justice." On the verge of murdering his client and killing himself, Spat recounts the events leading to his despair and his twisted belief that "justice can be restored only by a crime."

Durrenmatt's novel ends with a different voice--that of an editor who tries to make sense of Spat's manuscript and interviews the other players in this game of justice to verify the authenticity of the manuscript. "The author, a lawyer, was no match for his material. The present kept interfering . . . the work of a dilettante."

This last section of the novel seems deliberately unclear with paragraphs that run for as long as 19 pages, fusing accounts of murder and suicide to the extent where they become jumbled, and making dreadful statements about the nature of rape: "A person was only truly free when being raped."

Despite his focus on politics, Durrenmatt has the gift to create unforgettable characters within a few lines: a dwarf woman who lives her sexual fantasies through others; a private detective who killed his mother and her lover when he was a boy; old Prof. Karl Knulpe and his wife, eminent sociologists, "equally tall, equally emaciated, equally unkempt and dirty." Inseparable in their private relationship, the professor and his wife are "archenemies in science, doing nasty battle with each other in journals; he was a great Liberal of the old school . . . she an impassioned Marxist known under the name Moses Staehelin."

According to Durrenmatt, he goes after the kind of humor that develops from the tragic, "ernst genommenen Humor" (humor that is taken seriously). One of the best-known contemporary authors who writes in German, he has written many radio plays and several novels. His work also has been performed on Broadway.

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