I’m back with my monthly book recommendations! Did you miss me?
“Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”. The most dangerous man in Hitler’s cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the “Butcher of Prague”. He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of history.
Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church.
A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet’s remarkable imagination, HHhH—an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history.
You might be wondering why I read a book like this: a non-YA, historical, post-modern novel. That’s a pretty valid point. To be honest, I read it for one of my university courses. And as I wasn’t a huge fan of most of the other books we read, though all of them were very well-written, I wasn’t expecting to like this one. But as it happened, this one was my favourite.
I’ve read a surprising number of WWII books over the past year and a bit, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, THE BOOK THIEF, and now HHhH chief among them. All of them have been amazing; Anne Frank’s diary was beautiful and heart-wrenching, and THE BOOK THIEF made me sob like a baby. This one did neither of those things, but it did captivate me entirely. HHhH is probably the first post-modern novel I’ve ever read, or at least the first I’m aware of, and from all the complaints I’ve heard against the genre, I really wasn’t expecting the book to grab me like it did.
Laurence Binet manages to toe the line between fiction and fact perfectly. Sure, the line gets blurred, but it never seems too fake, or else too factual. The story weaves like a web, a network of facts and truth with fiction filling in the gaps. I believed everything he told me, and at the same time, was never really sure what was true and what was not.
Binet’s Heydrich, however much of him real or made up, was a great study in a villain. He had virtually no redeeming facets, but at the same time, I was constantly aware of how human he was. Yes, he was a monster. Yes, he was cruel and calculating. But I never felt as if he was more than human like some fictional villains can end up being. He was never too untouchable, never too unflappable. And for a historical story in this context, it would be easy to go too heavy-handed and draw Heydrich as a cartoonish villain to make the heroes look better. But Binet doesn’t do this; he even points out himself when others do it.
HHhH isn’t kind of book you read for light entertainment. Don’t get me wrong—I love those books. But this one makes your head spin. Instead of answering your questions, it gives you more. And if you have the time to pick it up, I’d definitely recommend it.
What have you been reading this month?