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Reinvention of the historical novel, but loyal to an epic story,
This review is from: HHhH (Hardcover)
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I spent my Honeymoon in Prague one crisp and clear December, and among the happy memories, I recall coming across the Saints Cyril and Methodius` Cathedral in the middle of the city. What caught my eye wasn't the architecture, but the figure of a World War II `British' paratrooper, depicted by a statue outside the cathedral, surrounded like a saint's statue by lights, candles and flowers, next to a window pulverised by ancient bullet holes.
Like the author of this utterly compelling and innovative novel, I began to read about Operation Anthropoid, the story behind this book. In a popular media haunted by glamorous and glamorised accounts of special operations, the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich still speaks of the creeping terror of resistance operations, and the un-faded horror of the revenge killings executed by an utterly ruthless regime.
The malign genius of the story remains Heydrich, the quintessential Nazi, like yet unlike so many of his superiors and peers. He was not merely a sickeningly twisted inadequate, but had an icy glamour, being a compelling, intelligent figure as well as an amoral force. The story of his assassination and its motivation is dominated by the fear that such an able and lucid man would seize control of Germany's armed forces if anything happened to Hitler. Allied governments feared the power of the Third Reich would be dominated by someone who actually knew what they were doing. A supreme commander who might listen to his generals was too horrific to contemplate. This, combined with the pressures, compromises and anxieties of the Czech government in exile in London, led to the parachute drop of two soldiers, one Czech, one Slovak, on a lonely mission to rid Czechoslovakia and Europe of a tyrant.
The image of Heydrich in popular culture is dominated in my mind by the chilling portrayal of Heydrich by Kenneth Branagh in the film Conspiracy, and his appearance as a character in the latest Bernie Gunther novel by Philip Kerr. The claustrophobia of Anthropoid is also captured in the low-key 1970s film Operation Daybreak. I think if you want a dispassionate account of the operation from the military history perspective, you couldn't do better than the newly reissued and best account of the assassination by Callum Macdonald, The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
This novel is something different, a breath-taking debut from young writer which moves easily between two very distinct genres. It seems imperfect, and compromised on first reading: sometimes mannered and self-conscious. But this is the essence of what the novelist is trying to do, and it makes for a powerful examination of the way a novel tells the story and the effects of novel writing on the author, dramatizing the pressure of doing justice to such a resonant and true story. The nearest British example I can think of in terms of this style was John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. Fowles was of course, influenced heavily by the French writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and obvious that this strand of the French "new novel" has been an influence on the young writer of this ground-breaking work. Binet combines the best elements of the thriller with a knowing self-interrogation of his literary process, and he resolutely refuses to fall between two stools, challenging, stimulating and delighting both audiences. I was particularly drawn to the self-conscious self-criticism of the fascination of the Second World War continues to cast across the generations. Binet is unashamedly a player of computer games, and the cold austerity of the war years seep even into his dreams. His engagement with the conflict and with the malign figure of Heydrich is troubling, yet honest, and created a deep sense of empathy from this reviewer. Readers interested in the anatomy of a fixation on an obscure topic by a writer, might find the short essay "9th and 13th" by Jonathan Coe where he dissects his obsession with the film "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes".
This is a wildly different novel to Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall, but struck me as similar in its energy and reinvention of the genre. I could go on, but after reading this novel I feel any final words or statement on the Anthropoid story should conclude with the names of the two brave men who met their death in a cold church in a Prague side street: Jozef Gab'ík and Jan Kubis - rest in peace.