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THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Boyne

THE  BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN - John Boyne THE BOY AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Doubleday (www.randomhouse.co.uk)

£12.99

Although Pierrot Fischer’s father didn’t die in the Great War, his mother Émilie always maintained it was the war that killed him.

It is 1936 and seven-year-old Pierrot Fischer lives in Paris with his French mother, his German father having drunk himself into an early grave several years before. His best friend is Anshel Bronstein, a deaf Jewish child who lives on the ground floor of his apartment building. When Pierrot’s mother dies, his father’s sister takes him in, and brings him to live with her. Aunt Beatrix is a housekeeper, and the house where she works is perched atop a mountain on the German-Austrian border, close to the small town of Berchtesgaden; this is the Berghof, and the master of the house is none other than the man who will soon become Führer of the Third Reich. Taken under Hitler’s wing, Pierrot soon rediscovers his German heritage, but finds that his newfound power comes at terrible cost.

Almost ten years after the phenomenal The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne returns to the subject of World War II as seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy. While both the title and cover of this latest story are both very reminiscent of that earlier volume, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is a very different beast, though one that, ultimately, examines the same core question – “nature or nurture?” – through a very different lens.

We see the world through the young and innocent eyes of Pierrot, though the third-person narrative allows the narrator to impart secrets to the reader that might otherwise be beyond the youngster’s comprehension. Precocious and likeable, we feel a blow at the death of his mother, and are glad when he finds a place at a small family-run orphanage where we get the sense that he will be well looked after. When his aunt brings him to live with her, we watch and understand Pierrot’s apprehension while at the same time feeling joy that he still has family who want to do their best by him. It is a joy that is short-lived, when we discover exactly where he is going.

For the most part, Boyne paints a very human picture of Hitler, a man with much on his mind for whom this young boy is excellent company. There are moments when the evil peeks out from under the mask, and even the most jaded reader will feel a chill as we see the monster within. As Pierrot – now Pieter – grows closer to Hitler, his relationship with his aunt, and with the house’s other servants grows ever more distant. We watch as Pierrot changes – first forgetting his Parisian roots and his friendship with Anshel, then alienating himself from what few friends he has been able to make at the school in Berchtesgaden, and from the people with whom he shares the house, even when the master is not in residence – and the change becomes most marked when Hitler presents him with a gift almost a year after he first arrives: his own Hitler Youth uniform, which bestows upon him a sense of belonging, and of power, that has long been missing from his life. There comes a point in the novel, a moment of shocking betrayal, where we witness the boy’s transformation into early manhood:

It was Pierrot who climbed out of bed that morning, but it was Pieter who returned to it now before falling soundly asleep.

As we have come to expect from the works of John Boyne, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is beautifully-written and well-researched. His evocation of the Berghof is enough to transport the reader to the Obersalzburg, and his characters are as full of life as any he has created. While it lacks the emotional kick in the gut that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas provides, it is no less intense an experience. (Regular readers will be pleased with the brief crossover between the two books, as Pierrot and Bruno come face-to-face at Mannheim train station.) It’s an engaging – and all-too-short – look at Pierrot’s journey to the very brink of evil, but it is also, at least indirectly, a very frightening examination of Hitler’s fabled charisma, and goes some way towards trying to explain how so many people might have been talked into doing so many bad things in the name of furthering the Reich, not least the once – and potential future – King of England who turns up with Mrs Wallis Simpson on his arm for a weekend retreat with the Führer. What is perhaps most frightening about the experience is how Boyne plays on our own feelings about this man, presenting him in a different light that contradicts everything we think we know.

Marketed, like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, as a piece of young adult fiction, The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is, like its predecessor, essential reading for people of any age. John Boyne uses one – fictional – character’s relationship with Hitler to try to provide a plausible explanation for the horrors of the Second World War. As readers, we become complicit in Pierrot’s transformation, constantly forced to ask ourselves the question “what would I have done differently?” As humans, we watch how easily corruption sets in and wonder how it could have been stopped. Spanish philosopher George Santayana is famous for his quote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” John Boyne uses fiction to remind us of what has come before; he is one of the few writers who is attempting to instil this knowledge in our younger generations and should be commended for his efforts. One of the finest writers working today, his books are the very definition of “must read”.

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar

A MAN LIES DREAMING - Lavie Tidhar A MAN LIES DREAMING

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£18.99

In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.

National Socialism is routed at the 1933 elections by Communism, and its leadership exiled from Germany. Sentenced to a concentration camp, Adolf Hitler escapes and makes his way to London where, under his old nickname, Wolf, he sets up as a private detective. When a beautiful Jewish woman steps into his office in early November 1939 to hire him to find her missing sister, Wolf has no idea where the case will take him, except that he should have listened to his first instinct and thrown her out on the street. As his investigation progresses, Wolf finds himself on the wrong side of all the wrong people: the Metropolitan Police; all of the men and women who once formed the upper echelons of the Nazi Party; Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; and a mysterious man who is killing the prostitutes who congregate outside Wolf’s office, and framing the detective for their murders.

Most importantly, for the reader at least, is the fact that none of this is real; it is all the lucid fabrication of Shomer, a man who once wrote shund – Yiddish pulp fiction – for a living, and who now uses it as a form of escape from his current location: hell on Earth. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In what is perhaps the most original take on the Holocaust novel to date, Lavie Tidhar presents the events as a hard-boiled detective novel which at first glance appears to be set in an alternate timeline. As the novel progresses we discover that it is actually a fiction, a story within the story, the dreams and daydreams of an Auschwitz inmate named Shomer. The central story follows Wolf as he accepts a job from Isabella Rubinstein, a Jew, who wants him to use his connections to find her sister who went missing while trying to escape from Germany. From the outset, it is clear that the aim of the story is to belittle and humiliate Wolf, the reasons becoming more obvious as we learn of the story’s origins. During his investigation, Wolf encounters old colleagues – Hess, Goebbels, Klaus Barbie – and discovers that they all appear to have adapted to this brave new world better than he has himself. Coupled with the success – and imminent election as Prime Minister – of Oswald Mosley, a wannabe in Wolf’s eyes

To see Mosley, that clown, with such power! Even the man’s words were second-hand.

, it becomes obvious just how far Wolf has fallen since the heights of the Nuremberg rallies.

Interspersed with this central narrative, we catch brief glimpses of Shomer, the eponymous dreamer, as he dreams his way through his time in Auschwitz, talking to the ghost of his dead friend Yenkl when he is not reinventing the man at the root of his suffering as the hero of a pulpy detective story. We get brief flashes of his arrival on the train, the separation from his family, hard labour digging graves and a brief stay in the camp’s infirmary, where he crosses paths with fellow authors Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik. It is, as you might expect given the subject matter, a harrowing look at life in Auschwitz made no less powerful by the brevity of our visits. Shomer, like those around him, is little more than the blue-tattooed number on his arm, and the stories he invents are the only relief he finds from the daily horrors. The novel’s final line is heartbreakingly beautiful, an excellent summation of what is an extraordinary novel.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a brave novel for a man whose life has been shaped by the very events he is describing

The majority of my family, on both sides, died in [Auschwitz]

Tidhar explains in his historical note at the end). A far cry from the outright satire of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, A Man Lies Dreaming examines the dictator in a completely different way. The first-person excerpts from Wolf’s diary give us some insight into the character of the man, while filtering much of the narrative through the Chandler-esque voice. Despite the odd moment where Wolf comes across as a kind of Basil Fawlty impersonator (

He bashed the receiver against the phone box, over and over, splintering the casing, wantonly destroying the property of His Majesty’s General Post Office.

), he elicits a surprising feeling of empathy from the reader, despite what we know. Like Chandler’s well-loved Marlowe, Wolf does not come out of this case well, one beating following quickly on the heels of the one before, ritual humiliation, an impromptu circumcision, so that it’s a wonder that the man makes it to the end of the story in one piece.

This sort of alternative history is not new ground for Lavie Tidhar, who won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for his alternate take on Osama. Brilliantly capturing the mood of a pre-war (war still looms very much on the horizon, though delayed by Hitler’s Fall) Britain while mixing it with the modern-day xenophobia that seems to be sweeping the country, spurred on by the likes of UKIP (some of whose slogans Tidhar uses to provide voice to Mosley’s supporters). The author’s deft touch sees Wolf, whose anti-semitic views survive his exile, become the object of racial hatred, rather than its purveyor, a state of affairs that is likely to have brought Shomer no small measure of happiness.

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes

LOOK WHOS BACK - Timur Vermes LOOK WHO’S BACK

Timur Vermes

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£15.00

Adolf Hitler opens his eyes to find himself lying in the middle of a piece of waste ground in Berlin. The last few days – his final days in the Bunker – are a blur and it doesn’t take long for Hitler to realise that it is no longer April 1945, but the end of August 2011. Assumed to be a particularly good imitator who refuses to break character, Hitler gets a slot on a popular comedian’s show and his rants soon go viral on the Internet. It isn’t long before Hitler is more popular than he ever was at the height of his power, and he begins to plan, once more, for Germany’s future.

Timur Vermes’ highly satirical novel, Look Who’s Back, puts us firmly in the head of Adolf Hitler as he awakens in the 21st Century, unable to explain his long absence or the fact that he is still fifty-six years old despite almost seventy years having passed. Told in the first person by Hitler himself, we discover our own world afresh through the eyes of a man whose last memory prior to waking up is of his time in the Bunker in late April 1945. Vermes holds a mirror up to the modern world, and the reflection we see is far from flattering, as evidenced, for example, by this beautifully-written rant about the state of television programmes which, for me, hits the spot perfectly:

Practically deadened, I switch back to the rotund woman. Since my last visit [a matter of moments earlier] her adventure-filled life had been interrupted by a programme of advertisements, the end of which I just caught. Then the narrator insisted on explaining to me for the umpteenth time that this wretched bint had lost all control over her bastard halfwit excuse for a daughter, and all she had managed to accomplish in the last half-hour was to prattle on to a chain-smoking neighbour about throwing the little cretin out. “This entire coterie of hopeless cases belongs in a labour camp,” I declared vociferously to the television set.

What’s most interesting about this incredibly astute look at our modern world is how plausible it is. Not in the time travel/Hitler coming back from the dead aspect, of course, but in the novel’s key messages. Hitler is astounded – as is this reader – by how few people recognise him, most of the youth referring to him as Herr Stromberg. Our "hero", of course, is expecting immediate recognition and respect. Is he not, after all, the Führer of the Third Reich? It’s this lack of recognition, and the instant hit that this madman becomes, despite (or possibly because of) his racist and objectionable rants, that strikes the most fear into the reader. People can’t quite work out whether to take the whole thing as a joke and laugh (he is, after all, on a comedy show), or be offended by his rhetoric. Vermes’ message seems to be crystal clear here: we cannot learn from the past if we have forgotten what happened. While Hitler himself may never come back, someone with the same ideals, the same notion of how the world should be and – let’s face it – the same level of charisma, could easily rise to notoriety (in the good, "loved by the people", sense of the word) in this technologically advanced age where broadcasting is no longer limited to a few thousand people who can afford a wireless, or a television set. We are a gullible lot: if the TV or whichever tabloid newspaper we happen to pick up says it’s true, then it must be true. We’re obsessed with celebrity, and we form cults and shrines to the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most controversial, the most whatever people in the spotlight, and by doing so, we give them the power to pursue their own agenda and, quite literally in some cases, get away with murder.

With his choice of central character, Timur Vermes may well have found himself skating on very thin ice. How do you write Hitler and make him sympathetic enough to carry the reader for almost 400 pages? Somehow, he manages it, and we find ourselves fully engaged from the first page to the last. There is no doubt about it: monster or not, Hitler was a man of considerable charisma, and Vermes captures this side of him perfectly. Amongst the rants and the anti-Semitism (corralled somewhat by the brilliantly effective "the Jews are not a laughing matter"), there are moments of pure beauty that make us, if not forget, then at least put to the back of our minds, the terrible things of which this man has proven himself capable. Witness the fondness he feels for his typist, and the joy he feels when he realises that she and Hotel Reserver Sawatzki have become more than just colleagues.

From the outset, Look Who’s Back is a comedy of errors and misunderstanding, often with flabbergasting results. For example, the final word in the production meeting which sees Hitler secure his slot on Ali Gagmez’s popular show:

"There’s just one thing I want to get straight," Frau Bellini said, suddenly looking at me very seriously.
"What is that?"
"We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter."
"You are absolutely right," I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.

These misunderstandings serve to cement Hitler’s position, in his own mind at least, as a man on the rise, heading back in the direction of leadership and the fulfilment of his destiny, while meaning something entirely different to the person on the other end of the conversation. The net effect of this is that the reader is left feeling distinctly uncomfortable: there is more than a remote possibility that Hitler could come back to power because someone has inadvertently handed him the reins, believing him to be a harmless impersonator.

From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.

TRAVELOGUE: The Church of Saints Cyril & Methodius (HHhH)

HHhH THE CHURCH OF SAINTS CYRIL AND METHODIUS
RESSLOVA
PRAGUE

As featured in: HHhH by Laurent Binet

Date of visit: 5th September 2012

Price of Adult Admission: Kč75 (≅£2.50)

When I started Reader Dad early in 2011, the plan was to stick to the book reviews and leave it at that. Now, a handful of interviews and a guest post later, I’ve decided to try something a little bit different, something that will, if it proves popular, be a very infrequent feature on the blog: the Travelogue.

Frequent visitors to the blog will surely know by now that I am an avid reader. I am that person who writes “reading” into the space on a form that asks about hobbies or pastimes. I also love to travel, and quite often combine the two: I’ll read fiction set in my destination in the hope of familiarising myself with a new city, or I’ll make sure I schedule in visits to landmarks I have read about as part of my trip. In this way, I have seen things like the standpipe and statue of Paul Bunyan in Bangor, Maine, which serve as inspiration for the landmarks in Stephen King’s fictional town of Derry, as seen in his novel, It; the police station in Ystad, from where Kurt Wallander runs his investigations; the statue that stands in the centre of the small town of Banbridge, Northern Ireland, which commemorates Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who plays a central role in Dan Simmons’ The Terror.

As a student of the Holocaust, I also make it a point to visit related sites when I’m in their vicinity: Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue and Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe both evoke the same sense of terrible history and horrific awe, while the Kehlsteinhaus (Eagle’s Nest) and the bunker complex at Berchtesgaden show things from a completely different perspective, no less frightening for it.

Nestled in the heart of the beautiful city of Prague stands a little gem that combines these two travel rituals: a location with indirect connection to the Holocaust, and one that plays a central role in what is still the best book I have read this year. If I’ve done things right, clicking on the pictures below should show you a larger version. Unless otherwise stated, the pictures are my own, taken with a cheap compact digital camera (FujiFilm FinePix AV220) on the default settings; the quality is variable, but in my defence, we were on our way to the zoo, so I shot quickly and recorded what I could.

Resslova is a fairly short, but seemingly quite busy street in the New Town section of Prague. At its eastern end, it meets Charles Square and from there runs westwards downhill towards Jiráskův Bridge and the famous Dancing House. Partway down the street on the right-hand side stands the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the building that now houses the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror.

From the east, the building appears out of nowhere – the front entrance of the church is on the westernmost corner, so the tourist has almost passed the building before realising what it is. According to J.M. Lau’s Prague: Then and Now, a beautiful coffee table book that shows how the city has changed during the relatively brief lifetime of the photograph, the church was built sometime between 1730 and 1740 and served as a home – complete with a 112-tomb crypt – for retired Catholic priests. One-time military barracks (1783) and centre for Czech technology (1869), the building was leased to the Orthodox Church in 1933.

Sheltered in a west-facing corner – the first indication to the west-bound tourist that they have reached their destination – is a shrine dedicated to the brave men whose lives ended inside on 18th June 1942.

The shrine centres around a small window, the surrounding stonework bearing the scars of the Nazi bullets that peppered it sixty years ago. Above the window, a plaque to the lost heroes.

Thinking I had seen all I was likely to see, I was very pleased to discover that the crypt is now the location of the National Memorial of the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and that it was open for business. With reluctant partner and three-year-old in tow, I headed inside.

The entrance hallway is a large square room, a reception desk to the right at the bottom of the steps, two walls covered in information boards and glass cabinets containing exhibits (both facsimiles and real objects). The third wall bears a large glass cabinet filled with books. In the wall directly opposite the entrance is a door, a wrought-iron-and-yellow-glass affair that doesn’t look out of place in a church, and that presumably didn’t exist in June 1942.

The information boards recount the story that Binet tells us in his own unique way in HHhH: the effect of the war on Czechoslovakia, the capitulation to the Führer, and the beginnings of Operation Anthropoid, all illustrated by photographs and facsimile documents. On display, amongst other items, is the uniform worn by the Czechoslovak Army in Great Britain; a racial profiling kit; a sample of Kubiš’s bomb, and that cursed Sten Mk II that made life so difficult.

There is also plenty of documentary evidence: Gabčik and Kubiš’s training forms; photos of Heydrich’s Mercedes showing the damage caused by the bomb and, on one particularly harrowing board, photographs of Lidiče, one of two towns chosen by Hitler to bear the brunt of his wrath for the death of his senior officer.

Then, tentatively, through the door. I was fortunate to have the crypt to myself for the duration of my visit. The place is soaked in atmosphere, and the silence certainly helps. It’s a well-lit space, though presumably that wasn’t the case in 1942, probably three times as long as it is wide, and probably not much more than ten or twelve feet wide at its widest point. I completely failed to snap a picture of the place in its entirety, but hopefully the other pictures will help you piece it together.

Along the left-hand wall, three alcoves filled with the narrow entrances of tombs, almost like a morgue with all the doors torn off. Almost directly overhead, the narrow trapdoor through which the assassins entered the crypt and later, through which the Nazis threw gas grenades, and the traitor Karel Čurda pleaded with the men to surrender. At the far end of the long narrow space, a staircase leading up; it was this staircase that gave the Nazis their way in, once they found the entrance hidden behind a tombstone. On the right-hand wall, three more alcoves, the two closest to the staircase filled with tombs. The last alcove, that directly to the visitor’s right when he enters the crypt, houses the room’s only source of natural light: the other side of that small window that forms the centre of the shrine on Resslova.

Beneath the window is the beginnings of a hole, the work of desperate men searching for any means of escape. With gas grenades being tossed down their only real means of escape, and with the fire department pouring water through that small window overhead in an attempt to flood the crypt, these seven brave men sought to escape into the city’s sewer system. This hole is now home to a second shrine: notes from around the world praising the bravery of these men, and thanking them for their service, share space with small gifts, flowers, coins, little tokens of the world’s appreciation. It’s a touching and humbling sight, and I’m not afraid to admit that it brought a lump to my throat and a stinging sensation to my eyes.

This is the room where four of these men took their own lives (the other three died in a hail of bullets in the church upstairs), and it is, quite frankly, one of the most awe-inspiring places I have ever had the privilege to stand. There are seven bronze busts along both sides of the narrow corridor depicting these brave men, as well as a final, shocking information board which shows pictures of the crypt in the aftermath of the invasion and pictures of the seven, the stark contrast between posed headshots and pictures of the bodies in situ.

Back outside in the entrance hall, stored in the glass-fronted bookcase, a multitude of books about Heydrich and Operation Antropoid. Proudly displayed amidst them, a handful of copies of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, in various languages.

While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea – most people visit Prague for the fun times and its external beauty, and few wish to be brought down, even briefly, by something of this magnitude – the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius is well worth the visit for anyone who has read HHhH, or anyone who is at all interested in this period in European history. Today it stands as a monument to the bravery and sacrifice of a few men for the greater good – the elimination of the architect of the Final Solution.

It’s an atmospheric venue, but it is well-preserved and gives the visitor a good sense of what the members of Anthropoid endured during their fatal stay. Fans of the book are unlikely to take away anything new from the information boards, though the photographs put much of Binet’s sometimes light-hearted narrative into some sort of context. It’s the crypt itself that proves the biggest draw, but be warned: it’s an emotional journey, and one that will stay with you long after you emerge once more into the sunshine.

HHHH by Laurent Binet

HHhH HHHH

Laurent Binet

Translated by Sam Taylor

Harvill Secker (www.vintage-books.co.uk/about-us/harvill-secker)

£16.99

Released: 3rd May 2012

Laurent Binet’s debut novel, the oddly-named HHhH, appealed to me on two different levels: first of all, as an avid consumer of any and all information concerning the Third Reich and the Holocaust, and secondly, as a lover of the beautiful city of Prague. Unsure what to expect when I started to read this odd, but strangely engaging novel, I was not to be disappointed on either level.

HHhH ostensibly tells the story of the May 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “most dangerous man in the Third Reich”, and of the consequences that followed. It is also Laurent Binet’s own story, the story of a man with a tale to tell and no idea how best to tell it. Amongst chapters detailing the rise of the Blond Beast, or of the convoluted journey that ultimately brought Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš to the north of Prague on the morning of May 27th 1942, we find chapters detailing the author’s research, his wishes for the novel, his neurotic analyses of certain phrases or paragraphs and whether they should remain in the final draft:

I have no evidence that Gabčík and Kubiš’s clothes were provided by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). In fact, it’s more likely that this was dealt with by Moravec’s Czech services. So there’s no reason why the NCO who looks after them should be British. Oh, what a pain…

Early in the book, Binet sets out his stall, and defines the parameters of this extraordinary novel: he will stick to the facts, with no embellishments. Where dialogue is required, it will be based on documentary evidence of some description, or it will serve to illustrate a point, and be marked as an invention of the author. What he ultimately produces is littered with invention and coloured by the personal opinions of a man who has been living with the story since childhood.

Hácha signs. “I have sacrificed the state in order to save the nation,” he believes. The imbecile. It’s as if Chamberlain’s stupidity was contagious…

If not for the polished prose and level of detail included on the central storyline, this could almost be an annotated early draft, littered with the author’s musings, notes and questions for further research. But that’s doing this wonderful novel an injustice, because it is a finely polished work, exquisitely researched and unbelievably tense. Binet references earlier histories, and fictional attempts at chronicling this period of history, or this group of monsters, including two of my own personal favourites – Robert Harris’ excellent alternative history of the Reich, Fatherland, and the wonderful BBC dramatisation of the Wannsee conference, Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci in the key roles of Heydrich and his own right-hand man, Eichmann – revealing an interest that verges on obsession.

Despite the interruptive style, HHhH builds in intensity as history pulls us inexorably towards the morning of May 27th 1942. The central storyline culminates in the 17-page Chapter 222 (the book is barely over 300 pages long, which should give you some idea of the average chapter length, and the relative importance of this one) and again in the 14-page 250th chapter, both of which seem designed expressly to take the reader’s breath away and keep them glued to the page. They succeed. The first details the assassination attempt itself and, from multiple viewpoints, the stories of each of the protagonists as they once again diverge from this nexus – Gabčík and Kubiš as they flee for their lives; Heydrich as he collapses and is rushed to hospital. The second details the siege of the church where Gabčík and Kubiš have holed up, waiting for the opportunity to flee the country.

Throughout, there is a sense of immediacy; the story is told in the present tense, in short, sharp bursts that would be the envy of any thriller writer. The author is a constant presence, and his personality and sense of humour infect the story, offering brief glimpses of light in otherwise dark places. Take, for instance, this offhand remark as the SS begin clearing the village of Lidice, a village removed completely from the face of the Earth on the orders of Hitler as punishment for the assassination of Heydrich:

Then the Germans begin to do what will soon become their favourite occupation: they divide the group in two. Women and children are locked up in the school, while the men are led to a farmhouse and crammed into the cellar.

HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completely other. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.

JULIA by Otto de Kat

JULIA - Otto de Kat JULIA

Otto de Kat

Translated by Ina Rilke

Maclehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£12.00

A brief flick through previous entries in this blog will show the reader that I have something of a fascination with the events of the Second World War. Not so much the war itself, but the individual stories that make up the fabric of time during which those terrible events occurred. Dutch writer Otto de Kat’s latest novel, Julia, is one such story, a surprising and heart-breaking vignette that chronicles Hitler’s rise to power through the eyes of a young, love-struck Dutchman.

Julia opens in the early 1980s. Chris Dudok, a man in his early seventies, is found dead on the floor of his study, apparently having taken an overdose along with his bowl of porridge. On his desk is a newspaper, an old German paper, dated 2 April 1942. On the front page, a list of names, circled in red. From there, we are taken back to Lübeck, February 1938, where a much younger Chris Dudok is working in a factory, sent to Germany by his father to gain some experience before he takes control of the family’s own manufacturing business. While in Lübeck, Chris meets and falls in love with Julia Bender, a young woman outspoken against the growing Nazi presence. As events culminate in Kristallnacht, in November of the same year, Chris flees back to the Netherlands, abandoning Julia at her command. It is a decision that will overshadow the rest of his life, and which will leave him filled with regret.

De Kat tells his tale in a series of flashbacks, the story coming together in three distinct time periods. Here is Chris in his seventies, on the night before he takes his own life, reminiscent and regretful. Here is the same man in his early twenties, full of life and love, in a country that is slowly succumbing to the grip of dictatorship, the world on the verge of war. And then there is Chris in the in-between years, trapped in a loveless marriage, possessing unwanted responsibility following the sudden death of his father and the passing of the reins to him. Behind everything lies the shadow of Julia, a young woman that we – and Chris, seemingly – know very little about:

Those moments in her company…Years hence it would be those moments, that time, that would count as the happiest he had known. Taken all together, what did they add up to? A few days, a fortnight?

We see Dudok’s life as a series of snapshots, as if we are seeing pages from the diary that he left in the car on his final night. De Kat shows us Germany in 1938 through the eyes of an outsider. Hitler is never mentioned by name, but his presence is felt in those pre-war scenes, and he is referred to as “the radio man” throughout. Chris watches his rise with the cynical and detached eye of the foreigner, unable to see what others see in him, why his ideas are finding footholds in the minds of the local population:

The radio man was a disaster, worse than Chris had initially believed. As for the never-ending palavers in Holland, the stultifying compromises, the wavering, all that was better than falling for the great lie of the national soul, the fixation on a mythical perception of blood and soil, the idiocy of one group being held superior to another. It was nauseating, loathsome, and also frightening.

There is an immediate rapport with Julia, an objector, the sister of a traitor to the cause, who becomes a shady underground figure and sends Chris away, ostensibly to keep both of them safe. There is an interesting juxtaposition of these two main characters – they share similar views, reached through different thought processes, yet one, in the eyes of the law, is a traitor, and the other not.

In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.

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