It’s the stuff of nightmares.  Being on the wrong end of a bunch of anti-social hooligans who are chucking stuff (stones, bird houses, full 2-litre bottles of milk!) at your windows.  The police, knowing exactly who they are, unable to arrest them, until your property has been criminally damaged.  This went on for weeks until the wee eejits  (Scottish vernacular seems appropriate here) set fire to the village litter bins.  Ring leader arrested.  End of story.

While this isn’t the scenario depicted in Kurbjuweit’s novel, the basic issue is the same.  The law doesn’t protect you in the way you assume.  It cannot intervene until a crime is committed, and the behaviours you think criminal, actually aren’t.  That said, they may well be bad enough to drive you to take the law into your own hands ….

Translated from German by Imogen Taylor

Kurbjuweit’s Fear opens with Randolph Tiefenthaler visiting his elderly father in prison, where he is serving a sentence for the manslaughter of his son’s neighbour.   What made this heretofore law-abiding citizen pick up a revolver one day, descend to the basement flat and shoot Dieter Tiberius dead?   The other question, of course, is how was this manslaughter, not murder?  Not sure that question was ever entirely answered. But let’s not fixate on what is a secondary issue.

The relationship between Tiefenthaler and Tiberius had deteriorated rapidly since he moved into his flat with his wife and two young children.  At first Tiberius was friendly and welcoming, then too friendly and welcoming for comfort.  Then he accused Tiefenthal and his wife of child abuse.   What evidence did he have?  Just the evidence of everyday life in a family with small children twisted with malign intent. I won’t quote details, but that was the most chilling aspect of the novel for me.

Kurbjuweit shows the poison that is infused by such accusations. How suddenly a parent needs to be conscious of every single action in their own home.  How natural situations and play can be reinterpreted through sinister eyes and even make you doubt the integrity of your spouse.   How impossible it can be to defend oneself and make the situation stop, particularly when there is a loophole in the law. Given that the novel is based on Kurbjuweit’s own experience, these details are rooted in a very painful reality.  No wonder in revisiting his own anger, helplessness, and a situation he has called hell, he has penned a fantasy revenge.

Yet Fear is a nuanced reflection on the moral issues at stake.  It forces the reader to ask what he would do in this situation.  How far would you go to defend your family’s well-being?  Can Tiefenthaler Senior’s action ever be justified in a civilised society?  Especially when there is a defence for Dieter Tiberius, the product of a very unfortunate childhood.  This insight into his character doesn’t come until late in the novel and in providing reasons (though not excuses) for his behaviour, it shakes Randolph Tiefenthaler’s certainties to the very core.  Thereafter he revisits past events, and that’s when the real revelations begin …

… and all I’m saying is that I had a suspicion he protesteth too much.

Thanks to Guy for bringing Fear to my attention during German Literature Month 2017. It was published in the UK by Orion on 25.01.2018.