hhhhHHhH Reinhard Heydrich by Laurent Binet (2009 fiction; English translation 2012)

This is an extraordinary read. I learned for the first time of Operation Anthropoid, a successful 1942 Czechoslovakian WWII resistance exploit initiated from London by exiled President Benes. Binet immerses his reader in a mixture of historical fact and imaginative musing that flows in starts and fits, in 257 chapterless paragraphs. The episodic narrative takes getting used to, but eventually I was carried along. Binet keeps interrupting his facts with whimsical insertions and authorial concerns. The form is highly original, but it enables Binet to fill puzzling gaps and to maintain pace. The substance of the book is the life and attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Blonde Beast, the Hangman of Prague, chief German official in Czechoslovakia.

Heydrich’s career is outlined against the mesmerizing background of what evolved into Hitler’s Final Solution. Binet’s description of the Babi Yar massacre alone makes the book memorable. Nor can I forget the erasure of Lidice town. And all along, Heydrich lives like a Roman emperor. Nazidom’s tribute to him was to name the Final Solution Aktion Reinhard. Operation Anthropoid is detailed in all its fragile complexity, involving multiple heroes and heroines, and a traitor. The denouement is spectacular – Thermopylae reenacted in the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, seven men withstanding thousands, killing 800. The aftermath is the extermination in reprisal of thousands, including everyone who made contact with the seven parachutists, all fingered by Karel Curda, rewarded with 1,000,000 marks. Unforgettable.

Reviewed by Martin Waldron