Friday, November 30, 2018
Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist
Intense legal drama and revenge thriller
Michael Kohlhaas, a novel by Heinrich von Kleist, is a remarkable book that most American readers have likely never heard of, but it is highly regarded as a classic by German-language readers. One of the favorite books of author Franz Kafka, this epic of one man’s struggle with the law obviously influenced the later writer’s legally themed fiction. After reading Michael Kohlhaas, I was shocked to find out that it was originally published in 1810. I would have guessed around 1920. The book has the feel of proto-modernism, like something Kafka, Knut Hamsun, or Hermann Hesse might have written.
Von Kleist based his novel on the real-life story of a 16th-century merchant named Hans Kohlhase. From the book’s opening chapters, it is difficult to determine when the story takes place, but then Martin Luther shows up as a supporting character, establishing that the narrative is set in the Renaissance. At the time, Germany was part of the Holy Roman Empire and was divided into smaller nation-states, governed by Electors, including Saxony and Brandenburg, which figure prominently in the story. Beyond that, it is not necessary to know a great deal about Central European history, even though the plot deals heavily with law and politics. Regardless of its time or place, the way von Kleist explores the universal themes of justice, vengeance, pride, and redemption will still prove profoundly moving to 21st-century readers.
Michael Kohlhaas is the story of how one man’s admirable and unswerving commitment to seeking justice intensifies into a crusade for bloody revenge. Kohlhaas is a horse dealer who owns an estate in Brandenburg but frequently crosses over into Saxony to conduct trade in Dresden. On one such business trip, he is halted at the border by a nobleman of Saxony, Squire Wenzel Tronka, who deceptively informs Kohlhaas that if he wants to cross into Saxony, a new law requires him to produce a passport. Kohlhaas protests that he has never been asked for such a document before, and he does not have one in his possession. The Squire insists that Kohlhaas can cross only if he leaves behind collateral in the form of two prized black horses, and Kohlhaas reluctantly agrees. After doing his business in Dresden, Kohlhaas returns to find his horses in terrible condition. Without his permission, the Squire has used them to pull plows in the fields, work to which they were totally unsuited. In addition, the groom that Kohlhaas left behind to tend the horses has been beaten and run off the Tronka castle grounds. Kohlhaas files a legal suit in Dresden demanding that Squire Tronka restore the horses to their original fine condition before returning them to Kohlhaas’s possession. His suit is rejected because Squire Tronka has relatives who are high-ranking figures in the government of Saxony. Deprived of fair and just compensation for his wrongs, Kohlhaas decides to take the law into his own hands.
From there matters snowball, and the conflict escalates. Though there is a great amount of legal and ethical complexity to the story, it is by no means a mere courtroom drama. Swords are drawn, and blood is shed in a truly gripping tale that is surprisingly morally ambiguous for its time. For the most part, the narrative is quite realistic, though towards the end von Kleist introduces a supernatural element that calls to mind the witches, soothsayers, and prophecies that frequently show up in Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, though written in prose, this almost has the dramatic intensity of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies or history plays. Though it was published over two centuries ago, Michael Kohlhaas turned out to be a truly pleasant surprise and an excellent read.
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