Tuesday, 19 February 2013

HHhH by Laurent Binet – book review

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a multi-layered construction, difficult to describe, but it works stunningly well. The book is a sort of quasi-historical novel for historical novel lovers. Or it’s a historical novel de-constructed, designed for analysts of historical novels. Either way, HHhH is a somewhere between good and great, although its style will frustrate some readers. The French author’s literary début is a complicated book that has cleverly been made to work. Sam Taylor's translation from the original French is also superb. This is the sort of interesting book that begs further discussion. 

There is one central character: Reinhard Heydrich. So on one level, HHhH tells the history of Heydrich the Nazi, culminating in his assassination. Heydrich had many sinister career roles: the ruthless head of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo and state security agencies; deputy to Heinrich Himmler within the SS (the Third Reich’s  sprawling Praetorian Guard); initial co-ordinator of the Final Solution; and, in the months before his assassination, the “Protector” and de facto ruler of Nazi-occupied Bohemia-Moravia (today’s Czech Republic). In this latter role, Heydrich quickly assumed a role of imperial proconsul, ruling the country from his Prague castle, and quickly becoming known to the Czechs as “The Hangman” or “The Butcher of Prague”.

Alongside Heydrich’s goose-step march towards his own death, Binet tells the less well documented story of Operation Anthropoid, the codename for the London-planned job to  send in two parachutists on a one-way ticket to kill the Hangman of Prague. The thriller historical events at its centre are dramatic enough. (Binet says he wanted to call the book Anthropoid, meaning 'resembling a man'.) At the core are Heydrich’s two soldier-assassins: Jozef Gabćik and Jan Kubiš. Here is the true central, heroic story to tell, but here also there are many more gaps to sketch into the historical record around Anthropoid, its details, and its many Czechoslovak participants.

Then there is the wider Czech tragedy to tell, culminating in the consequences of Heydrich’s death: summary killings by the thousands, whole families and entire villages eradicated, at Lidice and Lezaky, by the vengeful Germans. There is betrayal and collaboration too, adding further villains to the story. Binet credits the operation and the Nazi atrocities that followed with championing Czech resistance when the subjugated state was at its lowest ebb, and, by the Germans' brutal response, irrevocably condemning Nazi Germany in the propaganda war for global opinion.

Heydrich (centre) with his SS boss Himmler (left)
The title HHhH is an acronym of an unfunny Nazi joke designed to illustrate Heydrich's dangerous power, potential and ambition within the Nazi regime. HHhH refers to the German for “Himmer’s brain is called Heydrich”. Unlike his “hamster-like” former chicken farmer boss Himmler (and most other Nazi leaders) Heydrich looked and acted the part of the Aryan superman leader: tall, blonde, blue-eyed and athletic; as well as cold, clever, ruthless and brutal. Born Reinhardt, he clipped the ‘T’ to sound tougher. His SS colleagues affectionately (and fearfully) called him “The Blond Beast”.

There is another important character in HHhH's unfolding narrative: the author. Binet  agonises directly with the reader over how best to tell the story. He ruminates over unverified details, such as the colour of Heydrich’s open-topped Mercedez limousine as its snaked its way towards the bend in the road where his killers waited. Was it black or was it dark green? He cites other writers’ accounts and a visit to a museum which contained Heydrich’s car. Was it the original vehicle in question; was it repainted; was it another of Heydrich’s cars; or was it a replica; should such a question matter?

His approach is somewhere between novelist, journalist and historian. Early sections recount Binet’s initial interest in World War II topics and attempts to read around the subject of Heydrich. His manner would be anathema to hubristic historians. Listing influences like watching DVDs of the movie Downfall and the TV film Conspiracy, or a wartime dream sequence stemming from hours spent playing Call of Duty, would never make their way into a ‘serious’ historian’s book. Binet confidently brandishes these examples. The effect is to endear him to the reader, who – smugly satisfied at the author’s candour and seemingly modest pretensions – invests in Binet’s  research project, wanting him and the book to succeed.

Binet is highly opinionated and sometimes scathing when citing aspects of the works of other authors on the same or overlapping subject matter. He condemns the metaphors of others, and considers himself above speculating, as another author did, for example, on conversations shared between Gabćik and Kubiš during the parachutists’ night-time journey from Britain to drop over their homeland in the steel tube belly of an RAF bomber.

The author instead ruminates and speculates on other unknowable conversations that may have taken place between the protagonists, for example when Gabćik (a Slovak) and Jan Kubiš (Czech) might have first met. Binet shares with the reader an apologetic novelist’s pangs of conscience on the shame of simply making up details, for the sake of adding drama or filling in gaps, for these real-life historical characters.

This trick might frustrate some readers – those that just want him to tell the story, with all the drama, minus an author’s apologetic asides, quibbles and questions. The amount of asides, of all shapes and sizes, is notable. Whether it adds or detracts is a moot point. I liked the historical ones. I mouthed a few choice phrases as the French author digresses into describing the romantic ups and downs of his own love life at numerous stages in the narrative, under the pretence of illustrating this or that point. He wants you to trace his literary journey, which takes him across Europe and to Prague in particular, to live the story with the characters.

Binet stresses that he wishes he could know what went on in his heroes' minds at the critical moments: when Gabćik’s gun jammed, face to face with the monster Heydrich; or in Gabćik’s final moments, cornered and doomed in the crypt of a Prague church, his place in history as assured as his own death.

The bullet-scarred church of St Cyril and St Methodius
History can be a novelist’s friend, but it is often an abusive relationship, with the author exploiting endless historical material, taken as props for detail or inspiration. HHhH’s best trick – the one that makes the book great, I think – is that his nervous novelist’s ruminations help to elevate the dramatic heroism of these desperately heroic scenes. It reminds you that this is more than fiction; that getting it right should count. We share Binet's desire to tell this story the right way. By sharing the historical novelist’s careful, painstaking  journey, Binet’s captivating book is a friend to history.  4½ out of 5.

HHhH is published by Vintage (2013). Extracts can be read here.

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