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Between fact and fiction.

June 17, 2012

There’s historical fiction, and then there’s HHhH: a daring and brilliant debut that challenges the very concept of the historical novel, cleverly scrutinising its own narrative tricks even as it weaves a tale so mesmerising and bizarre that it could only be true.

The curious title of French novelist Laurent Binet’s wildly original work is an acronym for the German phrase Himmler’s Him heist Heydrich, which translates to ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’. Anyone who knows their World War II history may (correctly) deduce from this that HHhH is to do with two of the Nazi Party’s most terrifying and influential figures: Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, and his right-hand man—the ‘blond beast’, the ‘hangman of Prague’, a bureaucrat with a bloodlust—Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS intelligence service and architect of the Final Solution.

And HHhH does indeed involve these men; specifically, it tells the story of Heydrich’s assassination at the hands of two Czech parachutists in 1942, a mission codenamed Operation Anthropoid that did not end well for anyone involved. But HHhH is as much about its author’s writing process and the nature of reproducing history, of making stories out of facts, as it is about Heydrich’s rise and demise. Binet has crafted both a historical novel, and an exploration of the genre itself, its narrative artifice and appeal; but it’s also about our simple desire for stories, and our need to understand real events and figures through the captivating prism of human drama.

Binet is a central figure in his own work, although he never dominates it. When the novel opens, Binet imagines Gabcik, one of the assassins, ‘lying alone on a little iron bed’ in Prague—the city where the Operation took place—and confesses that he doesn’t ‘want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind’. For the next 400 pages, Binet doesn’t just cross the tightrope between fiction and history—he performs acrobatics along it.

At the core of the novel is Heydrich, a menacing but oddly comic figure—narcissistic, ambitious, and driven by rage over rumours about his Jewish ancestry—whose rapid rise to power happens almost by accident. But Heydrich isn’t Binet’s protagonist: instead, he is ’the target,’ though ‘it must be admitted that Heydrich is a wonderful character. It’s as if a Dr Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature. Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster’. Even Hitler described him as ‘highly gifted but very dangerous’—the ‘man with the iron heart’.

What most captures Binet’s interest—and, ultimately, the reader’s—is Heydrich’s two soldier assassins: Jozef Gabcik, a Slovak, and Jan Kubis, a Czech. While they don’t appear until about a third of the way into the novel, Binet muses that their late entrance is perhaps ‘no bad thing,’ since ‘this long wait in the antechamber of my brain will restore some of their reality, and not just vulgar plausibility. Perhaps, perhaps…but nothing could be less sure!’

But Binet crafts such a rich and compelling narrative that he swiftly dispels any notion of ‘vulgar plausibility’. Gabcik and Kubis’s story is part of a complex historical chain of actions, decisions, coincidences, and repercussions that encompass the personal as much as the political, from Heydrich’s dishonourable dismissal from the Navy in 1931—which ultimately led to his successful interview with Himmler for a position in the SS—to the devastating Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, which prompted the formation of a resistance network. The most important action of that network took place on 27 May 1942, when Gabcik and Kubik—who had been airlifted into Czechoslovakia the previous year to begin their preparations for the assassination—finally came face to face with the blond beast in Prague, ready to carry out their mission at any cost.

Binet fills his narrative with commentary, observations, and fascinating human detail. Despite his obvious desire to be as truthful and accurate as possible, he is not simply retelling history, but recreating it in all its awful, funny, shocking, and mesmerising minutiae. It isn’t just the big events that shape the story behind this novel—the Night of the Long Knives, the dreadful massacre at Babi Yar—but the small, even inconsequential, moments: after the fall of Prague, when Hitler claims the city’s presidential palace, ‘Heydrich can’t help noticing that the Fuhrer eats a slice of ham and drinks a Pilsner Urquell, the most famous Czech beer—Hitler, who is a famous teetotaller and vegetarian’.

Binet’s direct, droll style gives clarity to his narrative, and a chilling edge to even the most well-known aspects of World War II history. ‘”We must kick the Jews out of Germany,”’ Heydrich declares during a meeting in the days after Kristallnacht. ‘”We should make them wear some kind of sign so they can be easily recognised.” “A uniform!” shouts Goring, always fond of anything to do with clothing. “I was thinking of a badge, actually,” Heydrich replies’.

But Binet cannot help but question himself—his depiction of scenes and characters, his knowledge, his representation of truth—as he writes. He describes his reaction to an article his girlfriend gives him that begins with a quote from an author: ‘”Has there ever been a biographer who did not dream of writing: Jesus of Nazareth used to lift his left eyebrow when he was thinking?”’ Binet scoffs at this idea, but then is ‘forced to admit that I would quite like to possess this kind of detail about Heydrich’.

If all this sounds tiresomely postmodern and metafictional, it’s anything but. What’s evident is not only Binet’s passion for his subject matter, but his desire to do the story justice, to honour the memories of the innumerable people who lost their lives in the fight against Nazism. ‘I’m fighting a losing battle,’ he despairs halfway through the book. ‘I can’t tell the story the way it should be told. This whole hotpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect—and these people, these real people who actually existed.’

But while he feels that he is ‘banging my head against the wall of history,’ it’s perhaps this very sensibility that makes HHhH such an impressive achievement. In acknowledging the impossibility of retelling history in all its truth and entirety, in admitting his fallibility as a writer, Binet makes us question the essence of storytelling at the same time as he compels us with it: the book’s final third, when Operation Anthropoid finally unfolds in the most dramatic and unexpected of ways, is as gripping, tragic, and brilliant as the most imaginative and well-crafted piece of fiction.

In the book’s final pages, Binet quotes Roland Barthes, who wrote, ‘”above all, do not attempt to be exhaustive”’. ‘There you go,’ admits Binet. ‘Some good advice I never took’. Be glad he didn’t.

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