HHhH by Laurent Binet
I’m not sure quite why I I’m dipping so much into literature dealing with the Second World War at the moment – just the way my mood is swinging, I suppose. But I read “Look Who’s Back” recently (a satire about the return of Hitler – review will follow in November) and wasn’t sure where to go next, when I remembered that I’d got hold of a copy of “HHhH” not that long ago, and it seemed the best book to go onto. As I’m currently reading Philippe Claudel’s “Brodek’s Report” I guess I’m in some kind of groove right now…
“HHhH” was first published in 2009 to much acclaim, and it concerns Operation Anthropoid, a plot to assassinate the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, who was at the time overseeing the Final Solution in Prague. The book is described as a novel, and sets out to tell the story of the two assassins sent to carry out the attack, a Czech called Jan Kubis and a Slovak called Jozef Gabcik. However, the book is not quite as straightforward as it might seem, as there is an extra layer, that of a novelist who is wrestling to write a historical novel but having trouble with the whole concept of such a thing.
The narrator is constantly questioning the process he’s undertaking, pulling himself back from inventing dialogue or events of which he cannot know the truth. Alongside this, he tries to tell the story as best he can, giving only what he knows or believes is fact. It’s an unusual concept and in fact leaves the reader wondering whether the “I” of the story is Binet, or another novelist onto whom Binet is projecting his anxieties! It’s clear that this particular historical story has really got under his skin
But surprisingly enough the concept works well, probably because Binet is such a good writer. He has a great love of Prague and a wonderful ability to conjure it up in prose; and he brings alive the characters involved brilliantly. In fact, much of the early part of the book is concerned with the victim and the background of events leading up to the assassination, obviously so that the reader understands the issues and why Heydrich was a target. Binet is almost journalistic in his approach, wanting fact not fancy, and bringing the story to life with a clear eye and a strong historical perspective. The book is quite experimental and is as much about the process of telling a story as of the story itself. The point seems to be that if all writing is fiction (and it is, in a sense) then the “I” of Binet’s narration is fictional too. And as the book progresses, Binet becomes so close to his work that he feels as it he is in it too, further blurring the boundaries.
“Kubis is dead. I wish I didn’t have to write that. I would have liked to get to know him better. If only I could have saved him. According to witnesses, there was a boarded-up door at the end of the gallery that led to the neighbouring buildings, and which might have allowed the three men to escape. If only they’d gone through that door! History is the only true casualty; you can re-read it as much as you like, but you can never rewrite it.”
In the end, Binet deconstructs the whole process of writing historically-based fiction by telling the tale and recording his responses to it; from his visit to the church where the assassins made their last stand, to the publication of a possible rival book, via his discovery of new facts and other novels on the subject while he is working on HhHH. By interpolating himself and his feeling into the story of Operation Anthropoid, Binet creates a powerful and effective book, particularly as the subject matter is so striking and often stark. There is no glossing over of hard facts and Nazi cruelty is shown clearly in all its brutality.
Yet despite his wish to tell a simple tale, Binet cannot help but wax lyrical at times and his writing is very evocative. The story of the two assassins is one of courage, with two men determined to try to make a difference in a world that appears to have gone mad and Binet is a worthy scribe to pass on word of their deeds to another generation.
The concept of the banality of evil is something I’ve only come across recently, and I’ve begun to dip into Hannah Arendt’s work to see if I can make some sense of not only 20th century events, but also man’s inhumanity to man, which continues into the 21st. And I think I’ve started to see what she means. It’s not just *one* person who’s evil, the foaming-at-the-mouth Hitler stereotype – the evil leader has plenty of people with him who think the same (or even worse) than he does, and are just as prepared to perpetrate vile deeds. Evil is not the prerogative of a few madmen – it’s an everyday thing that many are capable of and against which we must all stand.
Heydrich was one of Hitler’s staunchest henchmen (why were there so many Hs in the Third Reich??) and was no loss to humanity. The reprisals after his death were hideous and we must never forget those who suffered. I’d highly recommend Binet’s book (I hesitate to call it a novel, really) not only for anyone interested in Operation Anthropoid, but also for those interested in the way novels are written and the conflict between truth and invention, particularly in a world where the lines are often blurred. A wonderful and stunning read!