On the bookshelf: January 2015

Mad late with January’s reviews… But here they are!

Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis in 1942 (via Paris Match)

Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis in 1942 (via Paris Match)

I actually read Laurent Binet’s HHhH in 2014, but it seems apt to start with it now. A very postmodern retelling of the assassination of high-ranking Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, it doesn’t always work.

Heydrich was head of the Nazi secret services, and he was sent to (what was then) Czechoslovakia to quell resistance to the occupation there. It earned him the nickname “The Hangman of Prague”. He helped organise Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass) where Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed, and many Jews were killed. He was one of the architects of “The Final Solution”- the plan to wipe out the Jews- and even Hitler called him “the man with the iron heart”. In short, Heydrich was a terrible, terrible person. His death came at the hand of two brave Czech fighters, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik.

The pair were trained in Britain as part of Operation Anthropoid, a joint effort between the British and the Czech government-in-exile. The ultimate aim was to destabilise the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and strengthen the position of the Czech government.

Binet’s novel is not really a novel. It’s a retelling of the events leading up to Heydrich’s assassination, and in between Binet agonises about the nature of historical fiction, how he can never hope to capture what it felt like to breathe in the Prague air in June 1942, and his various girlfriends.

This gets very irksome. At one point Binet muses that he can imagine what it felt like to be a Soviet commander faced with an onslaught of Nazi tanks because his girlfriend’s just left him. It was all I could do not to throw the book against the wall (it was a loan from a friend so I resisted).

The only reason that Binet gets away with it is because the story of Operation Anthropoid is so fascinating. If you can wade through the stylistic tics, you will be rewarded with one of the most interesting tales of World War II. HHhH works despite the narrator’s best efforts.

More World War II… of a fashion in Robert Harris’ Fatherland. This is a chilling vision of what would have happened if the Nazis had won. Interestingly, Harris implies Heydrich’s assassination was a turning point. In this universe, Kubis and Gabcik failed. The Nazis pushed back against the Soviets and managed to separate them from their oil reserves and captured the Caucuses. The British were starved into submission and the Third Reich brokered an uneasy peace with the US.

It’s now the 1960s, Hitler is about to turn 75, and in Berlin, a policeman called Xavier March finds a dead body in a lake in an upmarket suburb. He’s plunged into a mystery which goes all the way to the top, and leads to him to discover the truth about the Nazi regime.

Fatherland is utterly persuasive in its treatment of how international politics would look if the Nazis won. Most of Eastern Europe is under their control, while war rages on with the USSR. In the west, a puppet EU (including Ireland) exists to do the Reich’s bidding. Instead of a cold war between the USSR and America, there’s a cold war between the US and Germany. However there’s a détente, initiated by President Kennedy. Not the handsome young hero who was slain in 1963- in Fatherland, the US president is his father, Joseph P Kennedy.

On one level, it’s a straight detective story. However it’s also extremely thought-provoking and disturbing. On a superficial level, these 60s are in no way swinging. The world is tense and dominated by fascism. A young band from Liverpool play in Hamburg- and are condemned by the Nazis for bringing ‘negroid’ music to Aryan ears. There is of course, the mystery of all those Jews who were deported eastwards and were never heard of again. The ending is shattering and seems to magnify the crimes of the regime all the more for its (thankfully) fictional take.

A portrait of the dollhouse of the real Petronella Oortman, by Jacob Appel (via Wikimedia Commons)

A portrait of the dollhouse of the real Petronella Oortman, by Jacob Appel (via Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s go back a few years now to Amsterdam in the 17th century. The era of Vermeer, of ornate table tops and women writing letters in sunlight is captured beautifully in Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist. It follows Nella, a naïve but determined country girl, as she marries the wealthy merchant Johannes. She feels unwelcome in his household, and when he buys her an ornate dolls’ house as a wedding present, she is resentful. However she soon becomes intrigued by the pieces she orders from the mysterious miniaturist; little figurines that seem to predict the fortunes of those around her.
Burton has managed to make the past come alive in this tale, and it’s truly enrapturing. It made me want to book a flight to Amsterdam right away.

A Tale for the Time Being is a more complex, and often challenging read. Ruth Ozeki has created a powerful meditation on time, death and the nature of reality.

The main character, like the author, is a writer named Ruth who lives in British Columbia with her husband, Oliver. It’s not too long after the devastating 2011 Japanese tsunami and Ruth, half-Japanese herself, knows that debris from the east will start washing up on their small island.

When a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing an antique Japanese military watch, and several diaries wash up, Ruth assumes that the tsunami debris has begun. However Oliver points out the currents are wrong, and the diary traces the life of a Tokyo schoolgirl named Nao.

Nao lived in California for many years until her father lost his job as a software engineer. She has trouble integrating back into Japanese society; she is bullied at school and her father, unable to find work, becomes depressed.  The one bright spot is her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun with whom Nao spends the summer.

A Tale for the Time Being is not an easy read, but it is a compulsive one.

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