‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

HHHH

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 336 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a unique take on the historical novel: it not only blends fact with fiction, the narrative includes the author’s own thoughts on researching and writing the story. What results is an intriguing hybrid, one that constantly reminds us that we can’t always trust the portrayal of history to be accurate or “truthful”, because there will always be elements that are confusing, ambiguous or simply unknowable.

A deadly plot from World War Two

The book focuses on a particular real-life event: the attempted assassination of Nazi SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague on 27 May 1942 by two British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, in a plot dubbed Operation Anthropoid.

As well as exploring the parachutists’ exploits once they are behind enemy lines and all the events leading up to, and after, the planned assassination, it also  looks at Heydrich’s stellar rise up the Nazi ranks to become acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, where he violently suppressed Czech culture and helped plan the “Final Solution”.

In literary terms, 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” — whose horrifying exploits earned him various names, including “The Butcher of Prague”, “The Hangman of Europe” and “The Blond Beast”. In fact, he was regarded as the most dangerous man in the Reich and was seen as a natural successor to Hitler.

He was widely believed to be the brains behind his boss, Heinrich Himmler — and this is the inspiration behind the title HHhH, an acronym of “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich”, which is German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.

How does a novelist stick to the facts?

But as Binet tells Heydrich’s story, he struggles to stick strictly to the facts: he wants to make things up, to add “colour” to situations, to fill in gaps, to create dialogue, to explain character’s motivations and desires:

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell the story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect — and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it — ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy — the unmappable pattern of causality.

He often shows his hand — for instance, when he says a German tank enters the city at 9am he adds that he doesn’t know if that’s true given that the “most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars”.

In another example he describes Goring as being “squeezed into a blue uniform”:

I don’t know why. I just imagine it being blue. It’s true that in photos Goring often sports a pale blue uniform but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day. He might just as easily have been wearing white, for example.

A Marmite book?

The danger with this kind of narrative structure in which the author butts in and interrupts the story to show his thinking is that you either love it or hate it.

If you’ve never really thought about the factual accuracy of historical fiction then you will probably find Binet’s approach fascinating and illuminating.

Me? I found it wearing. I’m a journalist. I know how these things work. I know that it is not always possible to verify every single conceivable, often minor and unimportant, facts — for instance, the colour of people’s clothes worn on a certain date and the exact words spoken behind closed doors — and I believe that a certain journalistic licence is acceptable if it helps get to the “truth” of a story.

But this criticism is not to diminish Binet’s achievement. HHhH is a highly original and astonishing “faction” novel, fast-paced, easy to read and full of thrilling drama. It’s incredibly evocative of time and place — the descriptions of Prague are especially rich and vivid — and meticulous in its detail (I particularly liked all the books and movies that Binet references throughout, many of which I’d read or watched in the past).  All in all, I loved its exploration of loyalty, betrayal, heroism and revenge.

HHhh won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, a highly regarded French literary prize for a first novel, and was shortlisted for various other literary prizes around the world, including the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

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21 thoughts on “‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

  1. I must confess I loved this book which I picked up in a last minute supermarket shop before it had been translated . I loved the play between historical fiction and auto-fiction……it also reported an amazing story of WW2 heroism and set it in a political context . I saw the author at Hay a few years ago ……and so my battered supermarket copy is now signed !

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  2. I was very impressed by this *hesitating to call it a novel* book! It was a story I didn’t know so it was interesting on that level, and I liked the postmodern flourishes too, especially because they reminded me not to take every word as gospel truth.

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    • Yes, it’s not really a novel, is it? But it’s not strictly non-fiction either. This is one of those books that defies categorisation.

      I didn’t know the story about Heydrich either, despite having read quite a lot of non-fiction books about the Nazis (in my journalism degree I wrote a 6,000-word essay on how the Nazis used broadcast media to spread their message and control the masses), so I quite liked discovering something new. Though I wonder if it might have been better to just read a strictly non-fiction account…?

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      • I’m not sure, I always feel that the author writes the book as he/she feels it needs to be written, but also in this case, the concluding chapters were gripping and it might have been hard to capture that as NF?

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  3. I own this book, but have been hesitant to pick it up. For some reason, I feel intimidated by it. Now, that I have a better idea of what it’s like, I will be more likely to finally get to it when I am in one of my war reading moods.

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  4. Having heard so much praise for this, I picked it up and at the library – and gave up on it well before my normal 50 page cut-off point. I’m not sure now what exactly put me off – certainly it was slow moving, the narrator interrupted too much, and I knew how it would end (a problem with historical fiction, though some authors manage to keep up the suspense even so). Overall I think my impression was of an author trying too hard, but falling flat.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Maryom. It is definitely one of those books that has potential to grate; you either hate the interruptions by the narrator or you like them. I admit I thought they were intriguing to begin with but as the story progressed I wanted him to be quiet.

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  5. I approached this not knowing what to expect, but I loved it. I think you’re right about it being a marmite book though (I love Marmite!) I liked the way he kept standing back from the narrative and questioning himself – it made for a fresh approach to a historical work and I thought it was a very honest way to look at writing about the past. Plus it was very gripping, and the interruptions worked as a useful narrative device to slow down the story and increase the tension.

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    • Well, I’m a Vegemite girl myself 😉 But that’s a good point about the narrator’s interruptions helping to slow down the story and build tension: I hadn’t thought of it like that but I think you’re spot on.

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  6. This is one of my favourite books. I can see why you found it wearing, but I loved the originality of it. There was a refreshing honesty about it all and it made me wish other authors were as revealing. I’ll be interested to read his next novel as I can’t imagine he’ll be able to repeat this style again.

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    • I hope he doesn’t repeat that style again, because that’s what makes this book so distinctive. It’s an original and refreshing take on historical fiction/faction. That said, there are other novels that use this meta approach such as The Soldiers of Salamis, and Windows on the World, both of which are reviewed in this blog.

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  7. When I read this, I initially found the author’s interruptions quite wearing. But then again, I think he raises a really interesting and valid point about the truth behind historical fiction and the role of the author. I agree that it’s certainly an original book!

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    • Agreed: he does make you think about truth and the role of the author. That’s not a new concept to me, hence my slight irritation with it, but I can see that for many people this would be quite an eye opening and interesting take.

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  8. I felt that the “interruptions’ were the point, really. There is a terrific story to be told, but this book is also about how we tell stories when those stories are factually true. How do we fill in the holes? What responsibilities do we have to the real people who lived the stories? And in the end, how can the author resist giving the “characters” the happy ending he so wants to give them when they didn’t get one in real life?

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    • Totally agree — I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about the point of the book and the interruptions. I appreciated what the author set out to do with this book, and I think he achieved it, but not everyone will like the style.

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