This Week’s Hot Reads: May 23, 2012

From HHhH, a Holocaust novel about the impossibility of writing a Holocaust novel, to a memoir without a trace of self-aggrandizement by priest and politician Bob Massie.

HHhH By Laurent Binet

A brilliantly profound debut about the assassination of the architect of the Holocaust, a subject of such enormity that it utterly resists fictionalizing. But Binet is not making things up.

Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague, the principal architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution”—is there a more evil villain in any story anywhere? Certainly Hollywood couldn’t resist. No sooner than he was assassinated on the streets of Prague by a pair of Czech and Slovak freedom fighters that Hollywood leaped to put the story on screen, not once but several times, although never very successfully. But then, no film, no novel—nothing fictional—can ever hope to capture the full horror of what Hitler perpetrated. It can’t be done. Or so I would have insisted before reading HHhH, Laurent Binet’s dazzling debut novel. (HHhH stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or "Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich," a Third Reich catchphrase.)

Ironically, I think Binet agrees with me, at least implicitly, because his novel about the murder of Heydrich is really about the impossibility of writing a novel about the Holocaust, a subject of such enormity that it utterly resists fictionalizing. His narrator tells us again and again that he’s writing a novel, but as he lays in the pieces of the plot, he’s equally eager to tell us that he’s not making things up. If two characters walk down a street under a sunny sky while leaves rustle in the trees, Binet will back up and apologize: he doesn’t really know if leaves were rustling—or maybe it was raining—but he knows the two men walked down that street. This is history as fiction, and fiction as meditation. I caught him cheating now and then, but not much. The truly astonishing thing is that his approach never seems like a stunt and never wears thin. I found myself turning pages faster and faster while I read about the two men who parachuted into the countryside and slowly closed in on Heydrich, even though I knew exactly what was about to happen. Maybe you can’t write a successful novel about the Holocaust. But, turns out, you can write a wonderful book—let’s call it a novel—about the impossibility of writing about the Holocaust. —Malcolm Jones

A Song in the Night By Bob Massie

Fighter against apartheid and former Massachusetts Senate candidate (until Elizabeth Warren entered the race) Bob Massie has lived nine American lives, and he tells them in a memoir.

Priest and politician, sickly child and medical miracle, Bob Massie has had about an American of a life as anyone could imagine. He has ridden its upward mobility from a tiny apartment to the eating clubs of Princeton, navigated its flawed health-care system through his agonizing ordeal with hemophilia, and witnessed its Realpolitk in his advocacy against South African apartheid and for a more ethical stage of capitalism. Product of both privation and privilege, he is uniquely suited to tell his story of America, and he does so with skilled prose and sensitive storytelling in his new memoir, entitled A Song in the Night.

The cynics among us will be rankled at the description of a book as “inspiring,” but Massie is the genuine article. Although not yet an old man, he has already led an unbelievably full life that defies summary in a brief review. Without a trace of self-aggrandizement, Massie evocatively depicts the crucible in which his character was tempered, and how his expansive love for humanity is due largely to the heroic love shown to him by his parents (both noteworthy Wikipedia page holders themselves) when he needed it most. —Nicholas Mancusi

Istanbul Passage By Joseph Kanon

A gripping and intelligent espionage thriller set in neutral Istanbul in 1945, when an American spy has to guide a Romanian defector to safety in an uncertain world.

Joseph Kanon (titles include The Good German and the Edgar Award-winning debut Los Alamos) is what publicists call a “bestselling author.” But don’t hold it against him, because Istanbul Passage is a masterful work that is as gripping as it is intelligent.

This will rightfully be marketed as a thriller, but it belongs among the brainy examples of the genre, like those by Robert Stone. It is 1945. In the espionage playground that is neutral Istanbul, Leon Bauer is an American businessman turned spook for the Allies. Now, while everyone appears to be packing up their toys, he finds himself stranded at the foot the Iron Curtain as it is just descending, in the brief dramatic pause between World War II and the Cold War. When his final assignment, to guide a Romanian defector to safety until he can be extracted to America, goes violently wrong from the start, Bauer is plunged deeper into the world of intrigue and moral compromise than he ever intended to go.

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Kannon may allow much more of the iceberg to be revealed, especially with his impressive and authentic-ringing dialog, but the story seems to exist in Hemingway’s universe, one in which two old friends can meet near a quay, call for too many rounds of drinks, and wonder if their shared secrets will haunt them to their graves. —Nicholas Mancusi

Emmaus By Alessandro Baricco

A novel of budding sexual desires where four boys vie for a beautiful girl in an industrial postwar Italy, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Far from the villas and palazzos, Italian author Alessandro Baricco’s new novel Emmaus takes place in an underdepicted version of Italy, a postwar industrial landscape of a country late to join the modern age. In this arena, four boys, Bobby, Luca, “The Saint,” and the unnamed narrator, vie for the attention of the Dionysian and enigmatic Andre, who, since her failed suicide attempt, seems tapped into a redemptive and yet dangerous energy that the boys all want for their own. In the face of their budding desires, both for sex and for meaning, the friends are forced to grow up fast, and struggle with faith and grace in a manner usually reserved for older souls.

Without knowledge of the Italian language or access to the primary document, it’s unclear who is doing the heavy lifting here: Baricco or his translator, Ann Goldstein, who is an editor at The New Yorker. No matter; the haunting prose is soaked in a poetic sense of doom and brokenness, a hard-edged working-class lyricism reminiscent of Tillie Olson’s dustbowl classic Yonnondio. This is reportage from after the fall of man.—Nicholas Mancusi

Patriot of Persia By Christopher de Bellaigue

In 1953, the U.S. and Britain staged a coup against Muhammad Mossadegh, then the premier of Iran, who flirted with communism and nationalized the oil industry. But the West would deeply regret this.

It’s a truth universally debated that Iran would have been a very different country if only Muhammad Mossadegh’s premiership had survived in 1953. Instead, after the shah’s hasty departure and the nationalization of the Iranian oil fields, Mossadegh was overthrown with the help of British and American intelligence. The shah returned to become even more despotic until his own overthrow in 1979 by Ayatollah Khomeini. The rest is a history that still haunts the region today. But thanks to veteran journalist Christopher de Bellaigue’s brisk, engaging 300-page biography, Mossadegh’s strange personality and at times baffling motives come into clearer focus. He doesn’t settle the debate, but he does show that it all could have gone rather differently.—Lucas Wittmann