Review – HHhH by Laurent Binet

Hhhh2

“When I watch the news, when I read the paper, when I meet people, when I hang out with friends and acquaintances, when I see how each of us struggles, as best we can, through life’s absurd meanderings, I think that the world is ridiculous, moving, and cruel. The same is true for this book: the story is cruel, the protagonists are moving, and I am ridiculous.” -Laurent Binet, HHhH

HHhH by Laurent Binet is oddly named but rightly so, as the Nazi tendency towards alliteration is just as uncanny as the rest of this historical metafiction novel. Sounding insane but purposeful, Laurent Binet struggles to tell the story of World War II’s Operation Anthropoid while also writing of his own shortcomings in research, distaste for other works of the time, and ultimately heartbreaking obsession with the exact details of a history lost to time.

Heydrich, aka "The Butcher"

Heydrich, aka “The Butcher”

The title stands for the Nazi phrase “Himmlers Hirn heiBt Heydrich,” translated to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” HHhH‘s villain, and the focus of an assassination attempt in Operation Anthropoid, is Reinhard Heydreich. A mastermind looming over Nazi history, Heydrich founded the Nazi intelligence organization, supposedly acted as the brains behind Heinrich Himmler, leading member of the Nazi party, and put in motion events which led to the Holocaust.

Operation Anthropoid itself, with Heydrich at its center, seems epic and book-worthy. Two parachutists planned to tumble from the sky and land in occupied Prague, where Heydrich worked out of a castle. These two parachutists, they’ll hide out. They’ll plot, they’ll assassinate Heydrich. They’ll die themselves. They are prepared for this. When the plan is executed, of course, things go wrong, as life often does.

Where HHhH seems to lose me is in its argument: Binet complains about the inaccuracies of other historical fiction in his novel, but by doing this he distances himself further from the truth of the story he wants to tell. Binet comes across as arrogant and pompous, and perhaps arrogance is necessary to write yourself into your own story like this, but for the first part of the novel I’m not sure it works. Binet often breaks out of the story to tell the reader he doesn’t know how something happened–rather than putting the reader into the story further, this seems to detract attention from the historical event and put attention directly back to the writer himself. It seems if he truly loved the story of Operation Anthropoid, as he professes in the book, he may have told the story itself in his eloquent and powerful prose, with the extensive research he completed, to the best of his ability. Giving the story he so appreciated to his readers, without his constant commentary, seems to me a better way to honor the actual historical event.

I think the most powerful books are written by authors humble enough to lose their own voice entirely in their work, sacrificing themselves totally for the sake of the story. I understand that Binet tries to pave the way for something new here, but I’m just not sure this new form is true to his stated intentions.

The power of HHhH is its second, unfortunately brief, part, where Binet finally recounts the assassination attempt and its aftermath with a powerful, dream-like precision. Like watching the entire scene in slow motion, Binet recounts the story he has been waiting a whole book to tell, and the details are haunting, the sentences crafted in perfect time with the action as it unfolds. Binet shows his ability to write well here, and he tells the story in such a crisp gasp of breath that I consumed this part quickly, wanting more. Ironically, this more traditional historical fiction, with its speculation and imprecision, is where Binet shines and the history itself seems to leap off the page.

HHhH on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

Advertisements

3 Comments

I thought–by the manner by which he more related the history and the histories of that history, Binet gave full measure to the almost futile courage of the Czechs that assassinated Heydrich. They murdered that scum, knowing full well their act meant their own deaths. In other words, I was very moved precisely because of the biblio-historical technique of Binet.

    That is a good point, the background information about the parachutists as they prepared for what was considered a suicide mission did make the story all the more powerful. Binet talked about another book by the man who trained them, I’m sure that would be an epic as well. (Hi Chas! Thanks for stopping by. =])

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

[…] story without sacrificing truth. In this way, the book reminds me a bit of Laurent Binet’s HHhH, as he wasn’t afraid to tell his reader what he could and couldn’t know, and where the […]

Leave a Reply

Name and email address are required. Your email address will not be published.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title="" rel=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <pre> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> 

%d bloggers like this: