Monday, May 13, 2013

2,462: HHhH by Laurence Binet

There is an inherent tension in writing historical fiction where the plot centres around real events and the characters are not just fictional constructs but real live (or, more usually, dead) people.  An absolute sticking to the known facts is likely to produce at best a dull story and, more likely an incomplete one.  After all, unless the characters have all produced autobiographies, who’s to say what they said or thought at the time.  On the other hand, the more the author interposes him-or herself into the narrative the further away from historical and the closer to fiction the book moves until, in the worst case, the story becomes bad history.

This tension and whether historical fiction should actually be written and, if so, how, are the central concerns of Laurence Binet’s semi-autobiographical narrator in HHhH, his debut novel and winner of the Prix Goncourt - for those of you who aren’t familiar with the book the title is the acronym for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”, a popular jibe at Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and not known for his intellect.

The narrator of HHhH wants to tell the story of Operation Anthropoid, the plan to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich who, in 1942, was the acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia one of the more disingenuous titles in history as one of his other nicknames was the Hangman of Prague.  In brief, two Czechoslovak parachutists, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík, were dropped into Czecvhoslovakia as part of a joint British and Czech operation.  The two men ambushed Heydrich as he was driving to his office in the morning and, although the attack failed, Heydrich died a few days later of an infection caused by his injuries.

It is difficult to say whether the operation had any practical consequences other than removing one of the most repellent of all the Nazis from the world.  Czechoslovakia would suffer under Nazi rule until May 1945 and Heydrich’s death came too late to prevent him from being one of the chief architects of the Final Solution.  In any event, the assassination which had been designed to send a message to the Czechoslovak people that Czech resistance was still alive and to bolster the credibility of the Czech government-in-exile, resulted in the death and imprisonment of thousands of civilians as the Nazis extorted massive reprisals on the local populace.  The reprisals culminated in the Lidice massacre in which the entire adult male population of the village of Lidice was shot and all but a few “Aryan” children were deported to concentration camps from which few returned after the War.  In one of history’s crueller ironies, Lidice had been targeted as the result of a faulty intelligence report, claiming that one of the two assassins had family there.

Binet starts from the position that this was one of the bravest and most significant resistance operations of the War and so the responsibility to the truth of the author is correspondingly great.  This gives his narrator the launching pad both for his increasing obsession with telling the story and for his meditations on the nature of historical fiction.

The narrator returns again and again to the ethics of inventing dialogue and scenes, arguing that to do so does the truth an injustice and detracts from the import of what actually happened.  Nevertheless as the plot unfolds, he succumbs to the temptation, although from time to time, he plays with the reader by stating his intent to stick to the facts before inventing a scene and then confessing to this, thereby destabilising the narrative and showing us the ensuing loss of certainty in the story.
At times it descends into a kind of post-modernism by numbers effect but fortunately, the points he is making are generally interesting enough for him to get away with it.  He discourses on the level of detail that it is necessary to include and whether minor descriptive details are valid, even if assumed or not verified.  His narrator also veers off at various points to mention and criticise other books dealing with Operation Anthropoid specifically and historical events more generally.  One particular attack on Robert Litell’s The Kindly Ones smacks a little too much of personal malice and actually detracts from his overall points.

It’s fair to say that the ideas and the historical story are the thing with HHhH and some of the dialogue and narrative is a bit wooden and, dare I say it, cheesy.  Binet’s style when recounting events relating to the Holocaust and the death camps jars as being a bit insouciant and matter of fact for the subject matter - I suppose this might even be a deliberate technique to increase the reader’s discomfort as Binet tries so hard to play with the historical fiction form.

Nevertheless, with all the above caveats I couldn’t put HHhH down.  He paces the action and the denouement of the operation nicely and the balance between the meta-fictional parts and the realist narrative works really well.  I have to confess that I still can’t decide whether this is a great modern novel or a piece of post-modernism lite but I thoroughly enjoyed both elements of the book and would highly recommend it - I think it will be read for a long, long time to come.  Full marks also to the translator, Sam Taylor.

For other bloggers' reviews of HHhH, please take a visit to:

The Book Smugglers1streadingCathyreadsbooksBookmunchRowena Book ShopRobin's BooksAnnabel's House of Books and Winstonsdad's Blog.

If you've posted on HHhH and it's not here, do please let me know if you would like me to link to it.


Anna said...

This sounds like a fascinating book. I'll have to see if my library carries it. Great review!

Unknown said...

This was my favourite read last year so I'm really pleased that you enjoyed it. It is interesting to see you mention The Kindly Ones - did you know that large chunks of the book (abusing The Kindly Ones) were removed before translation into English and what was left is supposed to be OK!

Anonymous said...

Hi Falaise,
I wasn't aware of th is book. Sounds very good. Thanks for the excellent post!