Sunday, 27 January 2013

HHhH (The brain of Himmler is Heydrich)

This may be a first. I'm not a consumer of the latest books. I'm a slow reader and a picky reader and most things I read have been published for at least two or three years, usually longer.

I first heard about HHhH about six weeks ago at Scott Pack's blog Me and My Big Mouth. He'd listed it as Number Two of his top books of 2012. It looked interesting, so I put a hold on it at the library, and it came up surprisingly quickly. I had just begun reading it when I spotted it at The Bluestalking Reader blog, this time because HHhH has made the shortlist for the National Book Critics Circle Awards 2012.

So some pathetic excitement in my life: I've actually read something that's up for an award. The irony, of course, is that HHhH was published in French in 2009; it's the translation that is copyright 2012. I wonder how much of the award is for the author, and how much for the translator (a man from Nottingham named Sam Taylor who has written three novels of his own)?

This book is about Reinhard Heydrich,
head of the SS, a chief creator of the "Final Solution", and terror of Prague, where he was eventually assassinated in 1942. I first heard of him when I was in elementary school, reading a simplified Scholastic version of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which included a brief and rather sanitized description of what the Nazis did to the village of Lidice, Czechoslovakia in reprisal after Heydrich's death. To put it simply, they killed everybody except a handful of kids who could pass for Aryans. They even shot the dogs before razing the place.

This story is also about Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, the Czech and the Slovak assigned to kill Heydrich. Apart from what Heydrich represented and the horrors he unleashed, according to Laurent Binet, the Czech government-in-exile needed a powerful act of resistance so that London would remember to revoke the Munich Agreement after the war.

To interweave the stories of the marksmen and their target, Binet writes -- not a novel exactly, but a series of impressions about writing a novel about Heydrich and Kubis and Gabčík. In 257 sort of blog posts, Binet veers from Heydrich's childhood and rise to power, to the choice of Gabčík and Kubiš for the suicide mission, from Babi Yar to a brutal and possibly mythical football match between Nazis and Ukranians, from whether Heydrich's Mercedes was black or dark green to which of the Czech families who aided Kubiš and Gabčík (the vast majority of whom were shot or gassed) will be sacrificed from the narrative for brevity's sake.

Does it work? Well, yes. It's a bit distracting at times, especially when Binet hauls us back into the present to stew over details, but the final third of the book as we hurtle toward the assassination and its horrific aftermath is engrossing -- and frankly getting jerked into the present from time to time is a relief.

Will it win the award? Heck, I don't know; I never read the latest books, so I have no idea what the competition is like. This book is worth reading though, whether it wins the award or not.

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