H H h H LAURENT BINET HARVILL SECKER €13.99
SOMETIMES a book comes along which is so good that critics feel the need to find fault with it in the smallest ways. In the case of Binet's work, a powerful and compelling novel about vengeance in the Second World war, it is the author's self-conscious intrusion of himself: he is a novelist struggling to write a novel about an absolutely true event -- can he do it justice? Is there a danger he will embellish; is it tasteless to even have these concerns? We are dealing here with the Holocaust after all.
Critics have focussed rather pointlessly on this post-modern trickiness by Binet as a questionable distracting aspect of the story. But the reality is that such authorial concerns only enhance the reality and tension of the story and its unbearable conclusion. Not for a moment can Binet, a young French writer, be said to show anything less than full humanity, or indeed let the momentum of his story slacken. Let's face it, we have had endless accounts of war, and especially accounts of the Second World War and the Nazis, and if a story comes along that can renew our sense of shock and awe -- and powerful sense of respect for the good guys -- then we should be grateful.
Binet's book is centred around 'Operation Anthropoid', a daring assassination mission undertaken by two Czech parachutists who are dropped into their country in 1942, with the aim of taking out Reinhard Heydrich, "the most dangerous man in the Third Reich", according to Hitler, and who has become a ruthless Nazi overlord of the Czech lands. Heydrich is officially Himmler's number two in the dreaded SS, but a fearful joke refers to him as "Himmler's Hirn heisst Heydrich" (HHhH): Himmler's brain is called Heydrich. Hence, the book's title.
Tall, blond, scheming and ruthless even by Nazi standards, Heydrich is the so-called Butcher of Prague and provides the perfect vehicle for Binet to examine the psychology of violence and fascism, but also of bravery and resistance.
But the real strength of the book is that, in a relatively short space, Binet also manages to examine so much more -- the power play in Europe, the build-up to the Holocaust, the genuine neurosis and working lunacy within the Third Reich and the desperate actions of those brave enough to resist.
He is particularly withering on the collaboration of his native France, for which so few have been held accountable. But Binet's style is also witty and engaging and he focuses on the weird coincidences and accidents of history, as well as providing compelling images.
But it is also a deeply human story and Binet describes the lives and origins of the two agents, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, with whom he admits he has become obsessed, as well as the brave souls who gave them aid and shelter. He describes how, desperate but determined, they travel from France to Britain and then on to Prague and their fateful encounter with Heydrich, in daytime Prague, waiting for his open-top Mercedes to appear. Though we know the ending, it doesn't detract at all from the suspense and tension, and Binet pays homage by slowing it all right down. Heydrich is killed, but not without drawing his pistol and pursuing the agents, and not without an infamous savage retribution being taken by the Nazis: they raze to the ground the village of Lidice, which they wrongly link to one of the men, killing or deporting all everyone.
The book's final scene, with the two exhausted agents and their comrades holed up in a ruined church and surrounded by hundreds of SS stormtroopers, is extraordinarily powerful and moving. This is a truly superb book, which restores one's faith in what the novel can do.
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