HHhH, by Laurent Binet

>> Sunday, February 14, 2016

AUTHOR: Laurent Binet

PAGES: 336

SETTING: 1930s and 40s Germany and Czechoslovakia and, I guess, present day.
TYPE: Non-Fiction

HHhH: "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich," or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich."

The most lethal man in Hitler's cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich seemed indestructible?until two exiled operatives, a Slovak and a Czech, killed him and changed the course of history.

In Laurent Binet's mesmerizing debut, we follow Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to their fatal attack on Heydrich and their own brutal deaths in the basement of a Prague church. A seamless blend of memory, actuality, and Binet's own remarkable imagination, HHhH is at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing?a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the debt we owe to history.
This is the story of the mission to assassinate one of the Third Reich’s most important men, Reinhard Heydrich. You might not have heard of him (I confess I hadn’t), but he played a key role in creating and implementing the “final solution” to the Jewish “problem”.

Round the mid-point of the war the Czech resistance was in disarray (and no wonder!), and their British hosts were making it clear to the leaders in exile that they compared poorly with the resistance in other countries. These exiled leaders therefore decided they needed a big, showy operation to demonstrate they were worthy. And what could be better than assassinating Heydrich, then the protector of Bohemia and Moravia? Two men are sent from London with the mission to kill him.

But this is not only just that story. It’s also the story of Binet writing it. It’s not that he breaks the fourth wall, it’s more that there’s basically no fourth wall at all. He anguishes over how to write different things. He talks about how so and so wrote a memoir after the war, but it’s so expensive that he can’t justify buying it, so he’ll have to imagine a particular scene. Two chapters later he’s broken down and bought the memoir. He gives us his opinion on people (that vile, cowardly Chamberlain!). He’ll write a scene and then critique it in the next chapter, explaining why he used a particular turn of phrase and why he fears it doesn’t work.

It sounds a bit gimmicky, but it works. In fact, it works fantastically. It sounds like the sort of thing that would distance us from the story, but it has the opposite effect. It becomes clear to the reader that the reason Binet is quibbling so much about how to write this story, why he's going through so much anguish, is because he cares so passionately about the people in his story. He wants to do them justice, so he worries about making them characters in a book and failing to tell the story in the way they deserve. And we readers somehow come to care, if not just as much as him, then nearly.

I often find experimental books a bit pretentious and pointless, but this is exactly why we should be open to experimentation. When it works like this, it can be brilliant.

By the way, on a more personal note, this and SPQR, by Mary Beard, were by far the two best books I read while on holiday. Both non-fiction, both just as much about the telling of the story as about the story itself. I was clearly in the mood for this!



Lil Marek 4 January 2017 at 02:00  

Thank you for this review. It sounds like an excellent book, but I don't thinkI'll be able to read it. Heydrich is a familiar name for me, and this whole story touches too close.

It's surprising, isn't it that we can—or at least I can—read about the horrors of the distant past with equanimity, but as soon as attaches our own lives, no matter how tangentially, we pull into our shells. I suppose that is why I prefer to read (and write) historicals. It's emotionally safer.

Rosario 13 March 2017 at 07:48  

Hi Lil: Sorry it's taken me so long to reply (comments on old posts are automatically placed on moderation, as they tend to get spammed a lot, and I completely forgot to check the "comments in moderation" folder the last couple of months!).

I can totally understand that. I try very hard when I'm reading about real historical episodes not to lose sight of what it must have actually meant for people actually living through them (there's a bit at the end of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale set a few hundred years after the main action, where historians are talking about it and making jokes. And coming after I'd just experienced just how traumatic what they were laughing about had been for the people involved, I was shocked. This has really influenced how I read history now). But still, that's different from having a personal connection to that particular bit of history. If I'd had that connection, I don't know if I'd have been able to read this one, either.

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