The evergreen allure of Nazis as the embodiment of evil is what drives this French author’s soul-stirring work: a hybrid of fact and meta-fiction that won the Prix Goncourt in 2010.
Picture a man being driven to work in an open-top car, taking the same route every day. He is feared and loathed by passersby, yet he has no bodyguard. This is Heydrich in Prague in 1942: the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, supremely powerful, supremely vulnerable. He is Binet’s anti-hero. His projected assassination is Binet’s story, and Heydrich’s would-be assassins (Gabcík the Slovak and Kubiš the Czech) are Binet’s heroes. “Two men have to kill a third man.” Simple, no? But the narration is not. Binet’s alter ego narrator is a zealous amateur historian. Like all amateurs, he makes mistakes; disarmingly, he admits them. “I’ve been talking rubbish,” he exclaims. He retracts some of his assertions; he regrets his inadequacy as a historian. Yet in fact he does a good job of putting the assassination in a geopolitical context. He excoriates the spinelessness of the British and French governments in acceding to Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia. He convincingly profiles Heydrich, aka the Blond Beast and the Hangman of Prague. This monster was Himmler’s deputy in the SS (the goofy title refers to the belief that he was also Himmler’s brain) and the principal architect of the Final Solution. The assassination, dubbed Operation Anthropoid, was the brainchild of Beneš, head of the Czech government-in-exile in London. He needed a coup to restore the morale of the Czech anti-Nazis. Gabcík and Kubiš parachute in. The arrival of these modest yet extraordinary patriots is like the first hint of dawn after a pitch-black night. They are embedded with the Czech resistance while they plan tactics. The account of the assassination attempt and its nail-biting aftermath is brilliantly suspenseful.
Binet deserves great kudos for retrieving this fateful, half-forgotten episode, spotlighting Nazi infamy, celebrating its resisters, and delivering the whole with panache.