HHhH, by Laurent Binet

>> Sunday, February 14, 2016

TITLE: HHhH
AUTHOR: Laurent Binet

COPYRIGHT: 2012
PAGES: 336
PUBLISHER: Picador

SETTING: 1930s and 40s Germany and Czechoslovakia and, I guess, present day.
TYPE: Non-Fiction
SERIES: None

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!

MY GRADE: An A.

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