Laurent BinetHarville Secker/Random House, €16.49;
Review: Mary Leland
In one of those brutal ironies typical of the Nazi regime Reinhard Heydrich became ‘Protector’ of what was then Czechoslovakia, which, on the pretext of recovering the ethnic German people of the Sudetenland, was annexed by Hitler in 1939.
That takeover followed the Munich Agreement in 1938, from which England claimed its slogan of “peace with honour, peace for our time”.
Not a chance, says our author Laurent Binet, quoting instead Churchill’s response to the British negotiators: “You had to choose between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour. You will have war.”
So they had, largely because the annexation followed hard on the Austrian anschluss which meant that now Poland was surrounded by territories controlled by the Third Reich and whatever about the readiness of France and Britain to betray their Czechoslovak commitments they found it impossible to ignore the invasion of Poland.
This is the background to Binet’s enthralling narrative, which assumes that readers will know what went on before the assassination Heydrich in 1942. As Binet writes it, ‘… this seemed a simple enough story to tell. Two men have to kill a third man. They succeed, or not, and that’s the end, or nearly.’
It’s the nearly which gets the book going. It’s the nearly which offers Ivan Lendl as an explanation of the difference between the Czechs and the Slovaks or which reminds us of the kingdoms of Bohemia and Moravia, or which indicates the activities of the Czech government in exile in London and its agents in Prague. It is from such components that the book takes its life and which supply what Binet calls the ghosts who won’t leave his pages.
To deal with them he writes with an almost insouciant mixture of veracity and invention, admitting that “this story is personal. That’s why my visions sometimes get mixed up with the known facts. It’s just how it is.”
That’s just how it was. Gabcik and Kubis were the assassins whose success brought about reprisals such as the liquidation of the innocent villages of Lidice and Lezcky, the retaliatory death toll of many thousands including children and infants, sacrificed to firing-squads, mass-murders and concentration camps.
Rather like its unpronounceable title (taken from the initials of an SS joke) the structure of this extraordinary novel is challenging in that it tells a story which is already told and whose ending is no secret.
Ably translated by Sam Taylor, Binet invigorates his chapters by inserting himself as the narrator, reliable or otherwise, constantly flicking back to a reference, an anecdote, an impression.
What he doesn’t know he is inclined to imagine: though there is no doubt the chief conspirators die together in a church where they have fought desperately for eight hours to take down as many Germans as they could before killing themselves, he presents this extraordinary battle as one whose outcome cannot necessarily be predicted. Yet he invents very little except, possibly, himself.