Writing of the past

Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize a few hours ago, for Bring Up the Bodies, a book I greatly admire. I reviewed it for the Globe and Mail back in May: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/bring-up-the-bodies-by-hilary-mantel/article4106421/

You do need to read Wolf Hall first (even if the publishers say you don’t) but that’s possibly even better, and also won the Man Booker.There’s a profile of Mantel in the New Yorker this week, by the way. Success came late, and deservingly.

Along with a few others, I don’t essentially agree (as a writer) with this approach to treating the inner lives of real people, but I’d worry about my responses as a reader if I let that stop me from appreciating excellence on this scale.

For a treatment of history and real lives (rather more recent history, even more chillling than the dangerous court of Henry VIII) I have been recommending Laurent Binet’s HHhH. The odd title is an acronym for ‘Himmler’s Brain is Called Heydrich’which was apparently widely used at the time in Berlin … and the book treats the Czech assassination of Heydrich. Binet shares my resistance to appropriating the thoughts and feelings of historical figures – but takes an utterly different approach to dealing with this. It is a exceptional book about an incident too little known outside the Czech Republic.

The small church where the assassins and their fellows were trapped is now a memorial, and the crypt below it where most of them died can be visited. It is deeply moving, with a very well done explanation of the context and the event in the room up above. I’d put it very high on any list for visitors to Prague. And Binet’s book is a superb, distinctive telling of the story.

Here are two photos from there, SS Cyril and Methodius Church, a walk from Wenceslas Square, towards the river.

This is where the Czechs were trapped and eventually killed themselves with their last bullets. The window is where the Nazis tried to send in tear gas and then water in an attempt to flood the crypt. At lower right is the tunnel the trapped men started in an attempt to get through to the sewers. Tributes and memorials fill it. There are bullet holes everywhere.

Busts of Gabcik and Kubis, the men parachuted in from England to kill Heydrich. They deserve to be better known. So do the victims of Lidice, the village site of the Nazis’ most vicious reprisal.

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