Rating: 4 Stars
I’d heard about this book, heard that it was good, but that was about all I knew about it, other than the basic fact that it was about the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the brutal Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia.
It started off oddly. Instead of launching into a description of Heydrich’s background or maybe his assassins’ background, it starts off with the author describing himself as a child, his first encounter with the story of the assassination, as well as the fact that he fell in love with a woman from Slovakia.
I remember thinking, OK, this is just the prologue. But no, this is pretty much how the entire story is told. The story of Heydrich, his assassins, the assassination, and its aftermath are all told, but along with that you get pretty constant asides from the author as he describes how he went about writing it, his travels during his research, and his feelings about the events unfolding.
Somehow I managed to inadvertently wander into post modern historical fiction.
And very post modern it is. Is the writer truly the narrator in the book or is the narrator himself really just another character in the book? The narrator, in detail, describes his love life, his excursions, how he lives. Is this true or a literary device? Does it matter?
At various points in time, he states a fact and then just a few scant chapters later, he corrects himself and says that he has now discovered the truth and now that fact is wrong (unreliable narrator!). At other points he recounts a dialog or a character’s action and then immediately in the next chapter berates himself for taking such license by imagining conversations and actions and assigning it to a real, once existing person. He thinks doing such is incredible dishonesty and constantly accuses himself of it.
In fact, through the entire book, the narrator is unrelentingly self-critical. He’s constantly worried that he’s on the verge of failure.
Basically, to keep piling on the post modern, he is exposing the mechanics of writing historical fiction at the same time that he actually is writing it.
The interesting thing is…it kind of works. At the beginning, it was off-putting. If you’re goal was to learn as much as you can about Heydrich and you were looking for a straightforward historical fiction, then you will be disappointed.
I do have a weakness for post modern tricks like this, as long as I don’t encounter it on a regular basis and it’s cleverly done. This was cleverly done. At the same time that I was enjoying getting caught up in the drama of the plot, I was also getting swept along with the struggles of an artist trying, in as honest manner as he can, to achieve his vision with a purity of purpose.
One of the tricks of such works is how caught up you get in the story. The story is known. A couple of Czech soldiers are parachuted into the Prague area by the British. After spending a couple of weeks scouting the territory, they ambush Heydrich’s car. One of the assassin’s machine gun misfires. The other throws a bomb that lands outside of the car but explodes with such force that bits of the car embed into Heydrich’s flesh. Ultimately, it’s infection that does him in a couple of days later. The Czech populace suffer horrible reprisals and ultimately, the parachutists are trapped in a church. After an eight hour gun battle, one dies in an explosion and the other kills himself to keep from getting caught.
Even though I knew all of that, I was still all caught up in the suspense as the assassins positioned themselves around the slowly moving car. Even though I know they die in the church, I’m rooting for them to find a way to escape.
So, even with the post modern trappings, Binet still ended up telling a thrilling tale of heroism and selflessness in the face of evil.