This month, our Book Nook feature writer Abby Pinard provides three selections focusing on World War II.
Laurent Binet, 2013
(translated from the French by Sam Taylor)
Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich. Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.
Reinhard Heydrich — the butcher of Prague, the blond beast, the man with the iron heart – was one of the cruelest and most feared of the high-ranking Nazis. Chief of security and an architect of the final solution, he was named Reichprotector of Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech states annexed by Germany, and was charged with crushing Czech resistance and all vestiges of Czech culture, “Germanizing” the desirable population and eliminating the undesirables. On May 27, 1942, as he was being driven to work in Prague in an open black (or possibly dark green) Mercedes convertible, he was the subject of an assassination attempt by Jan Kubiš, a Czech, and Jozef Gabčik, a Slovak, who had been trained for their mission in London and parachuted into Czechoslovakia several months earlier. “Operation Anthropoid” didn’t go off exactly as planned but the reprisals were as brutal as might have been expected. (Note: “Anthropoid,” a British-French-Czech film based on these events but unrelated to this novel was released recently to mostly positive reviews.)
The narrator of HHhH, who may be the author, has spent years studying Operation Anthropoid – it would be fair to say he is obsessed with it – and in telling the story presents a parallel narrative about his struggles with how to tell the story. While the digressions might be expected to be distracting, the opposite is true. The narrator’s “eureka” moments when he unearths a key book, his decisions on what to include and exclude, his commentary on other novels based on historical fact, his musings on what drives people to extraordinary acts of cruelty and heroism serve to bring us closer to the story. And when it counts most, as the Mercedes approaches the bend in Holešovice Street where the assassins are waiting, he lets the story take over and propel us forward as if we don’t know what will happen.
At the end of the book, our narrator tells us that Kubiš and Gabčik are today viewed as heroes, celebrated in their homeland. But he describes himself as worn out by his “muddled efforts” to pay tribute to the many people who helped the assassins at great risk and great cost and who remain largely unknown.
…I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die anonymously. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don’t speak of them.
Laurent Binet has spoken of them and has written a novel that is both suspenseful and profound. Highly recommended.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932
Francine Prose, 2014
In Francine Prose’s popular book about reading and writing, Reading Like a Writer, she advocates “close reading.” Only by slowing down and carefully reading every word can we understand what is said and what is not said – the nuances of meaning that the writer has worked so hard to put into every word and into the spaces between the words. That’s good advice when reading any serious writer and of course when reading Prose. (Is there a writer with a better name?)
Even as Lou’s downward slide was gathering momentum, she prided herself on maintaining certain standards and not losing touch, as many of her neighbors were, with basic human decency and compassion. She was slow to come on board with the measures against the Jews, however much she personally disliked them. She knew that harsh tactics were sometimes required. She’d waited on line at the Palais Berlitz to see an informative exhibition entitled “The Jew and France,” where a display confirmed what she’d long suspected: behind every scandal lurked a Jew. Still, she didn’t enjoy seeing children herded through the streets at gunpoint. Once she was almost hurt by some idiot cops hurling crockery down from an apartment at a terrified Jewish family being loaded into a van.
“Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932” is the title of the emblematic photograph that launches Gabor Tsenyi’s career. It is a picture of two women, a cross-dressing athlete named Lou Villars, who will become France’s first female race car driver and then an infamous Nazi collaborator, and Arlette, her lover, who will leave Lou for a powerful cop/gangster. This assured, atmospheric novel covers a lot of ground – love and betrayal, good and evil, war and its aftermath, the mutability of truth – and ultimately packs a powerful punch. It opens in 1928 and tracks the transformation of Lou Villars from unhappy child to disappointed lover to monster, a life based on a real woman named Violette Morris. It is to Prose’s credit that we sympathize with Lou even as she betrays the country she professes to love. Other characters are also inspired by real-life figures, including the Hungarian photographer Brassai and there’s a dissolute American writer who resembles Henry Miller.
Prose makes the Chameleon Club the locus of the decadence and desperate good times of Paris in the jazz age and she circles back to it through occupation and war. The story is told and retold in alternating chapters by different narrators through excerpts from a biography of Lou Villars, letters, journals and a memoir, each presumed to be self-serving and unreliable. Taken together they paint a picture that captures the conflicted loyalties of a giddy and terrible time, a picture that surely contains the truth but in whose version? History is as changeable as gender roles at the Chameleon Club and this captivating novel is stunning in its contemplation of its meaning.
Love & Treasure
Ayelet Waldman, 2014
This is a solid effort by Ayelet Waldman. She has chosen a subject — unearthing the stories of those lost in the Holocaust — that has too often been taken up by mediocre (or worse) writers and riddled with melodrama and cliché. Waldman does better. She centers the novel on the historical “Hungarian Gold Train,” crammed with millions of dollars worth of gold, jewels, furs, and household goods that have been “collected” from the Jews of Hungary. When the train, on its way to Germany in 1945, is intercepted by the victorious Allies near Salzburg, Austria, a promise is made to return the goods to their rightful owners or heirs but the impracticality of the task, not to mention that the brass have quarters to furnish, doom that intention and most of the items simply disappear in the fog of post-war Europe.
The novel’s primary protagonists are Jack Wiseman, who as a young American soldier was put in charge of the contents of the train, and his granddaughter Natalie, who he asks just before his death to find the rightful owner of a pendant he himself impulsively pilfered. The story is told in three parts: Jack’s stewardship of the confiscated goods in 1945; Natalie’s present-day search in Europe and Israel for an heir of the pendant’s owner; and an entertaining narration by a Viennese psychoanalyst of his treatment of a headstrong young Jewish woman in 1913.
Waldman covers a lot of ground and the plot threads are not all equally well executed. In particular, two love stories are clichéd and unconvincing and the grandfather/granddaughter relationship is toothache-inducing. But she eschews the simplistic good/evil paradigm so common in fiction about the Holocaust and takes a more realistic view of a complex moral universe. Bottom line: This is well-written, absorbing historical fiction marred only slightly by a bit of sentimentality.
Abby is a lifelong book nut who retired from a forty-year computer software career in 2007 and ticked an item off her bucket list by going to work in a bookstore. She is a native New Yorker who moved to Boston recently to be among her people: family and Red Sox fans. She is a music lover, crossword puzzler, baseball fan, and political junkie who flunked Halloween costumes but can debug her daughter’s wifi.
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