W., by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Trigger warnings for disturbing acts of violence against humans and animals.

I’ve always been bothered by the term “crime of passion.” It always struck me as an excuse for a criminal act of violence, as if someone is somehow less guilty because they weren’t able to control their emotions. But then, when you start to think about things in terms of crime and punishment, how are we, a jury of readers or an actual jury, supposed to interpret the series of actions that lead to and follow a murder? How can we put ourselves in the mind of a perpetrator to decide if they acted with premeditation or malice aforethought or any of a number of legal distinctions for someone’s state of mind? And how much does that state of mind matter when someone is dead? I thought about these questions and the idea of a crime of passion a lot as I read Steve Sem-Sandberg’s W. (translated expertly by Saskia Vogel).

The story of Johann Christian Woyzeck has been told in fiction more than. The first version of the story was an 1836 play by Georg Büchner. Judging by the number of adaptations of that play and other versions of Woyzeck that have appeared in the 200 years since the soldier Woyzeck fatally stabbed his lover, I’m not the only one who is curious about crimes of passion or who wants to understand the thoughts that could lead someone to a sudden act of violence.

Sem-Sandberg’s W. gives Woyzeck a chance to tell his confusing story, in between sections that read like court transcripts or reports from legal and medical experts involved in the Woyzeck case. The legal documents keep us grounded in the facts of the case. Sometime before the night of June 2/3, 1821, Johann Christian Woyzeck procured a dagger made from a broken saber or bayonet blade. He used the blade on that June night to murder Johanna Woost. Woost had been Woyzeck’s lover. Beyond these facts, even in W., there is a lot of uncertainty about why the murder happened. There’s also a lot of uncertainty about Woyzeck’s life. He held a number of different positions: wigmaker’s apprentice, woodworker, soldier, barber, and general man-at-work. It seems like no one, not even Woyzeck himself, knew what to do with the man. I can only describe his life as a dark or anti-picaresque, in which Woyzeck is constantly caught up in bad situations with violent and/or manipulative people.

In Sem-Sandberg’s account, there are a number of factors that might influence a jury’s verdict about Woyzeck’s guilt. Woyzeck suffered a number of head injuries over the course of his life, starting in childhood. We now know that serious head injuries can change someone’s personality or alter their ability to tell right from wrong or affect their ability to regulate their emotions. Woyzeck may have also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He served with a regiment of troops from Mecklenburg during Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812, during which he would’ve seen terrible things. And yet, court records show that Woyzeck was—as far as the medical science of 1821 and 1824 could tell—of sound mind when his crime occurred.

W. is a challenging read. The multiple timelines, the senseless violence, and the ethical questions about mitigating factors mean that this book is difficult to read in several senses of the word. But I don’t think that readers who are curious about historical true crime, justice, or mental health should be put off. This book is packed with food for thought. I also very much appreciated Sem-Sandberg’s handling of the historical material. W. is a skillful blend of fact and fiction that brings to life a story that, apart from fans of Büchner’s play, is almost entirely forgotten.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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