TBTS Reviews: HHhH
There are too many World War II novels, and there have been for quite some time. Can there be much room for another? It could be argued that every drop of the war’s meaning must have been distilled, that everything that could be said already has been. We may have reached the point of diminishing returns, telling the same stories over and over and gaining nothing new from them. Even events this great and crimes this monstrous can be fully explored. Have we done so? Perhaps, after so many millions of words about it, it takes some truly remarkable powers to pry a new insight from the Second World War. But I think Laurent Binet has done it.
HHhH, Binet’s Prix Goncourt-winning debut novel, is the story of a great act of resistance, the greatest of the war in the author’s opinion, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Blond Beast, the Hangman of Prague, in broad daylight on a public street in 1942 by two men, a Slovak and a Czech sent by the British secret service. The story follows both Heydrich’s ascension to second in command of the SS behind Heinrich Himmler and the governorship of occupied Czechoslovakia and also the journey of his killers, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, from their dramatic escape from occupied territory, recruitment and training by British intelligence and the Czech government in exile, deployment by parachute under cover of darkness, all the way through to their deaths in the basement of a Prague church. While telling their story, Binet also frankly examines his own motives as a writer and his responsibility to the real people behind the story, blending history and imagination and memory together into a multilayered, complex, unique whole.
HHhH – the title, incidentally, is an acronym for a German phrase, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, meaning “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” – is not everyone’s war novel. Those who prefer a dominant, driving plot and a conventional structure should look elsewhere. (I do not wish to imply disdain for wanting those things, just to warn you that is not at all what you’re getting here.) Instead, HHhH is an intellectual exercise as much as a narrative story, a serious, thought-provoking meditation on the meaning of fiction and history. Binet has left exposed the novel’s load-bearing beams and pillars. He explains his reasons for proceeding as he does, and how his choices have consequences for both the novel and its author. For example, early on, after pages and pages building up Heydrich into the terrifying figure he was, Binet shows how writing Heydrich’s story affects him:
You’ll have gathered by now that I am fascinated by this story. But at the same time I think it’s getting to me.
One night, I had a dream. I was a German soldier … and I was on guard duty in an unidentified landscape, covered with snow and bordered by barbed wire. …
Suddenly, during my patrol, Heydrich himself arrived to perform an inspection. I stood to attention and held my breath while he circled me with an inquisitorial air. I was terrorized by the idea that he might find fault with me. But I woke up before anything else happened.
… It is obviously impossible that I – son of a Jewish mother and a Communist father, brought up on the republican values of the most progressive French petite bourgeoisie and immersed through my literary studies in the humanism of Montaigne and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the Surrealist revolution and the Existentialist worldview – could ever be tempted to “sympathize” with anything to do with Nazism, in any shape or form.
But I must, once more, bow down before the limitless and nefarious power of literature. Because this dream proves beyond doubt that, with his larger-than-life, storybook aura, Heydrich impresses me.
It seems lazy to call HHhH an intellectual’s war thriller, but it’s not entirely inaccurate. In HHhH, Binet pulls off many impressive feats. Not only does he tell the story itself, and in a way that is both exciting and truly worthy of the subject, he tells the history of the story and how many ways it’s been told before and also the story behind his own version even as it takes shape. He advances arguments against what he’s doing even while he does it. He questions his own motives and the worth of literature constantly, and yet by the end he had me believing in both. There is a point where Binet’s unconventional, indirect, thoroughly French approach gains traction and forcefully propels the book forward, and once Binet’s purpose becomes clear – not just to tell the story of a great act of heroism, but to test the limits of both fiction and history and, if possible, to exceed them – HHhH becomes a singular pleasure to read. Stimulating, well-researched, exciting and deep, HHhH is a great war novel unlike any other.