The Short Version: “Himmler’s hirn heißt Heydrich” – Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich. In 1942, Reinhard Heydrich was nearly assassinated in Prague. He died several days later of an infection resulting from said attempt – but what of his assassins? Also, what does it mean to write a novel about people who actually lived?
The Review: This is one of those books that seems like a good idea and, for the most part, comes out okay… but the fact that it comes out just okay is actually a mark of failure, not of success. What could’ve been a fascinating reflection on literary creation – using both the act of writing a novel and the source material of perhaps the greatest propaganda machine in the history of the world – instead is something muddled and unclear and not even really a novel at all. In fact, I’d argue that it’s barely a book by the end.
There is, of course, a big ‘thing’ in the literary world of late to deconstruct. By “of late”, I suppose I mean the last half-century although I guess it has also gone on for far longer… but anyway, I digress. These days, it isn’t enough to just write a novel – you have to do something else. How else will you be singled out above the chattering masses of your peers who just, silly saps, wrote a traditional novel? Best way to do this, of course, is to inject yourself into the story somehow. Make that narrative voice active instead of omnipotent. And that’s what Binet does here: he becomes, in a sense, part of the story.
But as a result, the story changes. It is no longer a story about Heydrich, about the assassins, about World War II – it is a story about writing a story about those things. And we’re left (or at least I was left) questioning, throughout most of the book, whether or not this was actually fictionalized. Because while Binet takes great (sometimes over-great) pains to specify where he is making things up (the self-flagellation over even the embellishment of a sentence, let alone the wholesale creation of one, gets tiresome after like the third go-round… on approximately page 15…), he’s mostly telling a true story. There are well-documented facts. Or so we’re told. I take this novel and the apparent research that was done to be mostly true… but should I not? Should I be ignoring it, treating it as Inglourious Basterds-esque fantasy? Well, no: Heydrich was in fact nearly killed in the attempt and all of the surrounding facts are true.
So, then, is this narrative historical fiction? He (Binet) doesn’t change history… so can it be considered that? No, I’d argue that it can’t – so why, then, is it considered a novel in the first place? It’s narrative non-fiction with some authorial interjections – unless those authorial interjections are the made-up part. But, then, the question becomes……… why? Why do this? Because, in the end, it is nothing more than irritating. The extant story packs a marvelous punch – full of good ol’ derring-do and spy adventure, enough to fill several novels! Hell, he references John le Carré as “the sort of novel I’m not writing” – and my response was “well, then what the hell good is this novel?”
Okay, that’s a bit of an overreaction. But genuinely, I want to know what’s going on here. I’m not curious in the “that was fun” way but rather in the “I’m irritated and want to know if that’s valid” way. Because if this was simply Binet – a first-time author who won several awards and is on the bracket for this year’s ToB – essentially jotting down his feelings, etc, as he researched a narrative-non-fiction piece on Operation Anthropoid… well, to put it bluntly: fuck off! I don’t care about your whinging that you don’t like the conventions of a novel, where people make up well-played sentences or scenes to fill in gaps where the historical record leaves it open – especially because Binet whinges about this… and then does it anyway. Or he does it and then says “well, I don’t know if they said that – but I think they would’ve” or something like that, followed by an apology for making things up in the interest of narrative economy. YOU CANNOT HAVE YOUR CAKE AND EAT IT TOO.
Rating: 2 out of 5. It is just okay. The writing is sometimes smart, sometimes funny. It flows quickly due to the small chapters. I just have an issue with the presentation and I really raged against it during the reading at times.
This having been said, there’s something magnetic about this book. Perhaps it is the source material – Heydrich is a compelling (….that might be the wrong word….) villain and one you sort of love to hate. And our heroes are good guys, willing to do what they can – and this is an interesting and undertold part of a crucial piece of history. So, sure, why not write this book and tell us this story in a new and refreshing way? But don’t waste my time: tell the story, tell a fictional riff on the story, or tell me YOUR story of writing the story. Don’t try to mix all three together and think you can get away with it. Although, judging from the critical reviews… Binet did just that: he got away with it. So, bully to you, Binet. But if this wins the ToB (which I have to imagine it will not)…..