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Laurent Binet, Author, Sam Taylor, Translator
Laurent Binet, trans. from the French by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-374-16991-6
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Taking its title from the German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,” Binet’s tour de force debut tells two stories: primarily that of the daring mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the prominent Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia known as “The Butcher” and “The Man with the Iron Heart” (a nickname of Hitler’s creation) among other epithets. It is also, however, the metafictional tale of Binet’s struggles with shaping the story. The novel’s 257 short chapters allow for these two strands to advance and entwine in gripping and revealing ways. When Binet stamps a key scene with the progressive dates of the three weeks in 2008 that it took him to render the eight-hour standoff in 1942, for instance, it deepens an already intense scene with a sense of the author’s reluctance to dispatch characters he admires. Those men, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, “authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history,” were trained in England and parachuted back into Nazi-occupied Bohemia on a mission they both knew might be suicidal. After months of planning, on May 27, 1942, they ambushed Heydrich in Prague. Weeks later they were cornered in a church basement, and Binet renders an almost unbearable account of their final hours fending off the SS. With history never in question, it is Binet’s details (such as Heydrich succumbing to an infection from having “horsehairs from the Mercedes’s seats” blasted into his spleen) and his compassion for the partisans that elevate these set pieces. His thoughts on the perils of the genre are also succinct and striking; inserting invented characters into historical novels is “like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.” Binet demonstrates without a doubt that a self aware, cerebral structure can be deployed in the service of a gripping historical read. A perfect fusion of action and the avante-garde that deserves a place as a great WWII novel. (May)
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