‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet – A Review

20130301_110437Written originally in French, and translated by Sam Taylor, HHhH by Laurent Binet is an attempt at a new take on historical fiction.

Entirely coincidentally, it comes as an excellent counterpoint to my recent reading of Jim Crace’s Harvest, and the comments he made during his talk at Foyles.  Crace said that he doesn’t do research for his novels set in the past, because facts get in the way of imagination.  Binet, or the character of himself that he portrays in the book, is the polar opposite; he drives himself nearly mad with his search for the facts, obsessively checking details like the colour of a Mercedes, green in one report, black in another, worrying endlessly about giving the historical characters internal thoughts and invented dialogue.

The novel tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the World War II mission undertaken by Czechoslovakian parachutists to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the ‘most dangerous man of the Third Reich’.  Notionally SS second in command to Himmler, the story was that Heydrich was Himmler’s brain, which, in German was shortened to ‘HHhH’.  ‘The Butcher of Prague’, Heydrich was also one of the architects of ‘The Final Solution’, and so is a perfect subject through which to dissect the banality of evil.

Presented in 257 short chapters, the novel deconstructs the process of writing  historical fiction.  So interspersed between the story of Heydrich’s career up to his appointment as Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, and the manner in which the Czechoslovak government in exile in London was treated by the British government, are tales of the writer’s obsessive research, the films he has watched, the games he has played, his dislike of the work of his rivals and the tribulations of his relationship with his girlfriend.

This might sound as if this trivialised a serious story of great violence and astonishing bravery, but it didn’t.  Instead, despite the clear manifesto that he sets out at the beginning of the book that he will only write things he knows to be facts, dismissing others who have invented dialogue and scenaria to flesh out the history, as the work progresses, he cannot control his own imagination.  He imagines himself there, at the bend in the road, waiting for the Mercedes to arrive.  Even though he knows the outcome of the story, he cannot stop himself from imagining a happy ending for his heroes.

The pace of the novel is brilliant.  Giving the reader the information in short chapters, and, at the outset, offsetting the history with the minutiae of the writer’s life, lightens the relentless darkness of the tale; but the screw is turned slowly but constantly through the book, so that by the time it arrives at the climax of the mission, to that moment of standing at the bend in the road, the tension is nearly unbearable.  I was totally hooked and holding my breath, even though I knew what was going to happen (from a fairly awful 1970s film,’ Operation Daybreak’  with badly miscast Anthony Andrews and Martin Shaw….).

Have you read this?  Do let me know your reaction to it.

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4 Comments

  1. thanks for flagging this one up on my blog and I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve read it! but on the skill of keeping you hoping for a happy ending when you know it’s just not going to happen, can’t beat Bel Canto in my opinion, which is my vote for International women’s Day tomorrow.

    Reply
  2. Julie DesOrmeaux

     /  April 1, 2013

    HHhH is on my all-time favorite list. Such perfection in writing is almost unbelievable. Although the cover made me think it would be unbearably sad, it curiously is not, being as much about the agony of writing as the story of remarkable courage. In fact, there are a few moments of humorous asides whispered in the reader’s ear by the narrator. Do read this book.

    Reply
    • I agree about the quality of the book – I’ve been recommending it to everyone too.

      Reply

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