Self's punishment - By Bernhard Schlink & Walter Popp
Korten summons me
At the beginning I envied him. That was at high school. The Friedrich Wilhelm in Berlin. I was getting the last bit of wear out of my father’s old suits, had no friends, and couldn’t pull myself up on the horizontal bar. He was top of the class, in P.E. too, was invited to every birthday party, and when the teachers called him Mr Korten in class, they meant it. Sometimes his father’s chauffeur collected him in the Mercedes. My father worked for the state railway and in 1934 had just been transferred from Karlsruhe to Berlin.
Korten can’t stand inefficiency. In gym, he taught me how to do the upward circle forwards and the full-turn circle. I admired him. He also showed me what makes girls tick. I trotted along dumbly at the side of the little girl who lived on the floor below and attended the Luisen, just opposite the Friedrich Wilhelm, and gazed adoringly at her. Korten kissed her in the cinema.
We became friends – studied together, national economy for him, law for me – and I was in and out of the villa at Wannsee. When his sister Klara and I got married, he was our witness, and presented me with the desk that is still in my office today, heavy oak, with carved detail and brass knobs.
I hardly work there these days. My profession keeps me on the move, and when I drop in to the office briefly in the evenings, my desk isn’t piled high with files. Only the answering machine awaits, its small window letting me know how many messages I have. Then I sit in front of the empty surface and, fiddling with a pencil, listen to what I should take on and what I should avoid, what I should sink my teeth into and what I shouldn’t lay a finger on. I don’t like getting my fingers burnt. But they can just as easily get jammed in the drawer of a desk you haven’t looked in for a long time.
The war was over in five weeks for me. A wound that got me home. Three months later they’d patched me together again, and I completed my legal clerkship. In 1942, when Korten started at the Rhineland Chemical Works in Ludwigshafen and I began at the public prosecutor’s office in Heidelberg, we shared a hotel room for a few weeks before we found our own apartments. The year 1945 saw the end of my career as a prosecutor in Heidelberg, and he was the one who got me the first cases in the financial world. Then he began his rise, and he didn’t have much time, and Klara’s death heralded an end to the Christmas and birthday visits. We move in different circles and I read about him more often than I see him. Sometimes we bump into each other at a concert or a play and we get on. Well, we’re old friends.
Then . . . I remember the morning clearly. The world was at my feet. My rheumatism was at bay, I had a clear head, and I looked young in my new blue suit – I thought so anyway. The wind wasn’t carrying the familiar chemical odour in the direction of Mannheim, but towards the Pfalz. The baker at the corner had chocolate croissants and I was having breakfast on the pavement in the sun. A young woman was walking along Mollstrasse, drew closer and grew prettier, and I put my disposable container on the window sill and followed her. A few steps later, I was in front of my office in the Augusta-Anlage.
I am proud of my office. I’ve had smoked glass put in the door and windows of this former tobacco shop, and on the door in elegant golden letters:
‘Gerhard Self – Private Investigations’.
There were two messages on the machine. The company chairman of Goedecke needed a report. I’d proved his brand manager guilty of fraud, but the manager had contested his dismissal before the labour court. The other message was Frau Schlemihl from the Rhineland Chemical Works requesting her call be returned.
‘Good morning, Frau Schlemihl. Self here. You wanted to talk to me?’
‘Hello, Doctor Self. General Director Korten would like to see you.’ No one apart from Frau Schlemihl addresses me as ‘Doctor’. Since I stopped being a public prosecutor, I’ve not used my title. A private detective with a Ph.D. is ridiculous. But being the good personal assistant Frau Schlemihl is, she’s never forgotten Korten’s