In “The Hideout,” a Czech engineer writes letters to his wife, Hanichka, from his hiding place in occupied France. In them, he describes how he went to Paris in 1939 without her knowledge in order to chase after another woman, only to be trapped there when the Nazis, who have taken Czechoslovakia, declare him a wanted man because they believe he was trying to sell the French a gunsight he was developing. However, his attempts to sell the gunsight to the French end in rejection and failure. Ultimately he ends up hiding in a basement, so desperate to escape to America that he’ll try anything, even a suicide mission.
“The Hideout” was originally published in 1945, and it has that flavor of mid-century Middle/Eastern European fiction. It is a short read, only about 130 pages, and is both brisk-moving and compelling (if you like the kind of thing that it is), and utterly unlike your standard American thriller. Despite its brevity, much of the main character’s notes are concerned with his inner state, as he contemplates the madness he is descending into due to confinement and strain. The events that take place during the book are gripping in the extreme–the narrator has to flee for his life, and kill to protect his hiding place–but most of the story is taken up with dialogue and introspection. Although the grand sweep of the war certainly concerns the narrator, since he is caught up in it in the most literal way, this is not an epic war story but a tightly-focused novella about the effects of the war on one person’s psyche, perhaps as a stand-in for what the war was doing to everyone involved, and particularly those in countries like Czechoslovakia that had no choice but to surrender–to “go into hiding,” as it were–or die in probably futile resistance attempts. It’s easy for the heavyweights of WWII to wonder at the passivity of the little countries, especially those situated so unfortunately between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, but for places like Poland and Czechoslovakia, “hiding” was their best bet for survival. All in all, a fascinating little story about an experience and by an author that the English-speaking world may not have much knowledge of.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.