Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich's car (a Mercedes 320 Conver...

Reinhard Heydrich’s car (a Mercedes 320 Convertible B) after the 1942 assassination attempt in Prague. Heydrich later died of his injuries. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


How sincere an anti-fascist are you? Enough to get yourself killed? To get your family killed? To get thousands of people killed?

These are just a few of the questions that run through your mind as you read HHhH, a novel about the mission, Operation Anthropoid, to kill Reinhard Heydrich, number two in the SS and “Reichsprotektor” of Prague, in May 1942.

That Heydrich needed and deserved to die is beyond question. But how far would you be prepared to go? Getting yourself killed is probably the least troubling part of the operation – though the bravery of one Czech resistor who had the presence of mind to more or less instantly kill herself with cyanide as soon as she was arrested is one of the bravest of the many brave acts described in the book. But what about your family? Many parents will be familiar with the sense that they would willingly sacrifice themselves to save their children, but what about sacrificing themselves and their children?

Yet, without such willingness, how can there be resistance at all? When the French resistors took their decision to kill for the first time on 21 August 1941 they knew that the inevitable consequence would be reprisals. But they also wanted that – because without reprisals there could be no general war, collaboration is too easy if there are no consequences to occupation for the general population. Who would say they were wrong to willingly begin a process that would lead to the deaths of thousands of innocents?

Of course, the moral imperative is and was clear. The Nazis had already killed millions of innocents by the time Heydrich met his doom. The plans for even more systematic mass murder – driven by Heydrich and his faithful servant Eichmann – were under way (though the Czechoslovak resistors did not know this). Killing Heydrich was a duty and you would wish you were as brave as those who did it, even though you doubt you would be.

HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich – Himmer’s brain is called Heydrich) is a great novel, if far from perfect. I bought it last summer to read on holiday but was rather put off by the post-modern premiss: the author, Laurent Binet, discusses, sometimes at length, his moral dilemma of making up dialogue between real people engaged in real events. But, actually, that does not really get in the way, indeed at times it is exceptionally interesting – for instance giving advice on how to survive brutal interrogation (the trick is to give your tormentors very limited information and very slowly – they don’t mistreat you because they want to know more, yet the information they get is meager and increasingly out of date) as well as there whys and wherefores of Studaten Germans.

Anyway, it’s a good book. Read it.


Houellebecq does Nazism

I am now reading the really excellent HHhH by Laurent Binet, and I am certain it will be the next review here.

But having read Jonathan Littell‘s The Kindly Ones Binet’s one line review (contained in his own novel) is just too good not to repeat here in advance of the main feature:

The Kindly Ones is simply ‘Houellebecq does Nazism’.


Snow by Orhan Pamuk


Cover of "Snow"

Cover of Snow

Travelling a lot with my work has its advantages – any flight more than an hour long is a good opportunity to get stuck into a book and the most recent flight – to Vienna – allowed me to finish off Orhan Pamuk‘s 2002 novel. And I needed to find the time, because although it interested me, it was never a page turner.

The book – Kar in Turkish – describes the trip (in 1999 or 1998) of the (fictional) poet Ka to Kars where he meets Kadife (do you see a pattern evolving?) and essentially wrestles with his confused and confusing outlook on life.

In the 70s Ka was a leftist revolutionary and so fled to Germany after Turkey’s 1980 military coup to live a lonely and frustrated life (visiting sex shops seems to be his main activity now that the poems have dried up). He gets a commission from a Turkish paper to visit Kars (in the extreme east of Anatolia and close to the Georgian and Armenian borders) to report on a suicide epidemic amongst girls and young women there. But his true motivation is to run off with Ipek, a woman he remembers from student days yet hardly knows, who now is living in Kars, divorced from one of Ka’s former leftist comrades (but now a moderate Islamist politician). This, he thinks, offers his last chance of happiness.

By the time he gets to Kars the town has been snowed in and then is subject to a “revolution” in which a band of actors, military and secret police attempt to destroy local Islamists while the town is cut off. In the middle of all this wanders a confused (and often drunk) Ka, unable to decide if he believes in God after all.

Needless to say it all ends badly for more or less everyone.

I suspect one of the functions of the book is to make “westerners” (whether from Istanbul or further beyond) feel confused by the world view of the Islamists and their mixture of rational anger at poverty and irrational theology. They have stepped into the void left by the collapse of the previous attempts to make Turkey a paradise on Earth by copying the Soviet Union (the most brutal advocate of the “revolution” turns out to be a former Communist, at last given the chance to indulge his love of violence). But the meandering in and out goes on at some length (436 pages in my edition) and so the book is more a duty than a pleasure.

The book is quite brave though  – it comes close to acknowledging the Armenian genocide (the Armenians are ever present and ever absent in the novel) and quite explicitly accuses the Turkish state of torturing and murdering Kurds.


A book that takes me back: and not in a good way

Cover of "How the Irish Saved Civilizatio...

Cover via Amazon

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe

This book is just awful, there is no other way of putting it. But it is also very familiar: reading it reminds me of being in Brother Jennings’s class back at Belfast’s CBS Grammar School in 1978 – it has just that mix of the trite and the fantastic as though Erasmus had never been born. (Brother Jennings was not a bad man, though – but he was trapped in the system).

We have to get half way through the book before we have any serious discussion of the Irish at all, and then we get a lot on the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid at Cooley), the classic epic poem of Irish pre-Christian literature but hardly relevant to the supposed subject matter of the book.

And then there is St Patrick. Well, the accepted consensus amongst historians today is that there were, in fact, two St Patricks. This theory is ignored by the book because it blows the central argument – that Patrick was the world’s first missionary – clean out of the water. Once you grasp that it is impossible to take anything else the book says seriously.

The only way it is interesting is as a yarn – the sort of texts one finds in the “lives of saints” – and reminiscent of a lost age in Ireland: one where the Catholic Church was seen as a credible moral leader.

It’s a great pity, because it would be good to have a serious, credible (and popular) book that did deal with this remarkable era in Irish history. This text was enormously popular but fails on the other two categories.


No Such Thing As Society: Andy McSmith

No Such Thing as Society: A History of Britain in the 1980s

I am going to start as I mean to go on, by cheating (worked for Lance Armstrong, after all).

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because I have not actually read Andy McSmith‘s book, rather I have listened to it as I rowed on the rower and cross-trained on the cross trainer and so on. But I still think that qualifies me to have an opinion – and here it is.

I thoroughly enjoyed this and would recommend it. Admittedly it’s part-polemic (though Andy tries to hide it) but there is a lot to be angry about, especially given the concerted effort to lionise Margaret Thatcher as a leader of national rebirth and revival (one can hardly dispute she was a towering figure in politics, but this text is a reminder that she was far from a great leader.)

The book is far from perfect – both because it contains niggling errors of fact (such as stating Bow Wow Wow‘s first single was Go Wild In The Countrywhen we all know it was C30, C60, C90 Go) – and because its attempt at an economic history of the decade more or less stops with its account of Geoffrey Howe‘s disastrous 1981 budget.

In that it reflects the fundamental weakness of the left’s critique of Thatcherism: the book recounts how the Right lost the argument in the long-term on social issue after social issue, from race relations to gay rights – but the only Left economic responses that are discussed at length are the “Alternative Economic Strategy” and the convulsion of the 1984/85 miners’ strike. In their way both represented the past and not the future: it is difficult to believe that a Labour government would not have wound-down the coal industry too – indeed it had done in the 1970s, though without the same inhuman brutality of the Tory years.

The book was a personal surprise too – I first met Andy in 1987 when he was working for the Labour Party and I was vice-chair of the party’s student organisation but I have never thought of him as having such developed and well-founded views on music – his description of the twin rise of “Lady Di” and the “New Romantics” made me think of both in new ways.

I think it’s fair to say Andy’s politics and mine are rather divergent – he’s never done anything to make me think he was a fan of Tony Blair and certainly it’s no secret that he had less than cordial relations with some of the brighter stars in the New Labour firmament. As such we might disagree on some of the lessons that we should draw from the experience of the 1980s, but as a book of evidence this text is a great place to start.