This novel by Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the key architects of Hitler’s Final Solution.
Or, to be more accurate, it’s the story of the writing of the novel about Operation Anthropoid. As so it’s a story about the writing of history and the impossibility of boiling it down into a clear, novelistic narrative. Binet writes:
I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell this story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect—and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it—ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy—the unmappable pattern of causality.
Binet examines how other writers, of both fiction and nonfiction, have tackled elements of the story he wants to tell, often criticizing their methods of, for example, putting thoughts in people’s heads that may or may not have been there. He wants to write a novel, to tell a story, but he also wants to get the details right. But sometimes he can’t help himself. So besides running up against the wall of history, he runs up against the tempting tools of the storyteller.
In a way, this book reminded me of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, about her attempt to research and write about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. In both books, readers learn a lot about the subjects of the investigation but also about the difficulty of getting at the truth behind real events. Because this book is classified as fiction, I’m left wondering how much of Binet’s narration about his research is, in fact, real. A similar question could be asked about Michael Chabon’s recent Moonglow, which felt altogether fictional to me in a way that this book did not. I believed Binet’s story about himself, and that ended up making me believe the story about Operation Anthropoid despite all of Binet’s complaints about how he’s not telling it the way he wants to.
The history actually takes up more space in the book than Binet’s musings about his writing. History related to the Holocaust is by its very nature horrifying, and that’s certainly true here. Much of the history presented was new to me, at least in its details.
Binet’s narrative, aside from two long passages at key moments, tends to be fragmented, jumping from one event or person to another, rarely offering more than a full page of uninterrupted narrative. I had trouble really settling into the book early on, even though I was interested, and I wonder if this fragmentation is the reason—it may be, but it’s also possible that I was in a distracted frame of mind that would make anything but the most immersive narrative hard to focus on. Either way, I did end up liking this, both for the story and for Binet’s approach to it.