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Brilliant, devastating, unbearable in parts,
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This review is from: HHhH (Paperback)
"How many forgotten heroes sleep in history's great cemetery?... Memory is of no use to the remembered, only to those who remember. We build ourselves with memory"
This is a brilliant, devastating book, almost unbearable in parts, that tells the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, and the courage of the Czech Resistance. What makes it, however, stand out from so many other stories of valour and defiance against Nazi totalitarianism is Binet's self-conscious struggle with how to tell this story while maintaining a respect for history and the real people contained within it, without reducing them to fictional characters in a novel. His solution, partial as it may be as he himself admits, is to make this into a novel about an author wrestling to write the story we are reading. It's not so much that this is metafiction (his story, after all, is true) but a form of metahistory that succeeds in challenging how we think about historical narrative.
The book, then, probes the way we can only ever access `history' through stories: not just previous books, but oral testaments, eye witness accounts, even primary documents none of which are ever neutral or without an agenda, even an unconscious one. Binet - or, rather, his unnamed narrator - draws playful attention to the way in which all narratives are forced to make choices of what to put in, what to leave out, so that they are always contingent and, necessarily, incomplete. At the same time, he evinces an unease about how far a writer can imagine what `really' happened, before that imagining becomes an untruth, a betrayal of the real people whose lives become subsumed in, and subsidiary to, the novel.
This is a book very much formed by a French post-war intellectual environment (Binet was born in 1972) and which is profoundly influenced by the writings of people like Derrida, Barthes (who gets a name-check at the end) and Foucault. It has a kind of Puck-like mischievous impishness at times that is very Gallic in tone but which manages to sit comfortably with the sometimes unbearable intensity of the story being told.
This feels like a book which could not have been written by an English author, that it springs from France's own not-forgotten history of Nazi Occupation and the French Resistance, the post-war struggle to accommodate collaboration, and the negotiations of the French Left to understand what it means to be a socialist republic while maintaining an independence from what was Russian communism.
But for all the intellectualism at work here, this isn't a cold or clever-clever book at all, and the heartfelt emotion seeps out especially towards the end: "worn-out by my muddled efforts to salute these people, I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don't speak of them".
I read a lot but this is a truly stand-out piece of work - an unequivocal 5 stars.
ps. The assassination of Heydrich and the aftermath is treated very differently but just as movingly in The Visible World (2008) which is dedicated to 'the seven in the church'.