HHhH: Laurent Binet

★★★★

By any standards, this was an unusual choice for me. The story of the assassination in Prague of Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the Final Solution and one of the most terrifying figures in the Third Reich, is not the natural successor to Dorothy Dunnett’s Gemini. It is certainly not the kind of book I would pick out for myself. But it was persuasively and persistently recommended to me by someone whose opinion I respect a great deal and so I decided to give it a whirl. It was the right decision.

This is a gripping and extremely vivid piece of history, which brings to life one of the less familiar episodes in the Second World War, and draws attention to two men who undertook their task with humbling bravery. It’s also an intriguing meditation on the act of writing itself. You might argue that the real subject is not Heydrich’s assassination, but Binet’s efforts to write about Heydrich’s assassination. The entire book is a dialogue between writer and work – an experiment in form – but Binet pulls it off remarkably well.

His focus is Operation Anthropoid, coordinated in 1942 by the Czech government-in-exile in London. Two men, Jozef Gabčík (a Slovak) and Jan Kubiš (a Czech), are parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia with the aim of assassinating Heydrich, who was serving as Protector of the region, and striking a blow for the Resistance. Whether or not they succeed, both men know it is highly unlikely they will survive. To set the scene, Binet also reconstructs Heydrich’s background, exploring his rise within the Nazi party, his intimate involvement with the plans that became the Final Solution, his status  in the upper echelons of the Reich and the threat that he represented as one of the saner and most intelligent members of the Nazi elite. (The book’s title, HHhH, is an acronym in German for the contemporary saying, ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’.)

It is occasionally horrific reading, and deeply sobering, helping to emphasise exactly why Heydrich was such a key target for the Allied powers and why brave men like Kubiš and Gabčík were willing to risk their lives to free their country. Binet ramps up the tension as the men prepare themselves to take the final steps on their mission – I won’t say more here, because I’m not sure how well the story is known and in Binet’s hands it becomes a real-life thriller.

Three crucial years of my life were spent studying History, during which I realised that the vast majority of what I’d always believed to be fact was in fact a mix of exaggeration, omission, supposition and occasionally downright fabrication. So it was with pleasure that I followed Binet’s struggles to distinguish fact from fiction in the story which he’d decided to tell; and I also enjoyed the way that he allowed himself to enter the story. Histories and biographies, after all, often owe just as much to their writers as they do to their subjects and here Binet makes his own presence (and prejudices) completely explicit. He explains how his interest in the story developed and the research trips he undertook; the books he read; the films he watched; and he explains how he wrestled with the material to turn it into a story that he felt comfortable telling.

The book is brisk and lively and divided into very short chapters which usually alternate between the historical story and Binet’s own journey of discovery. This means that Binet is a very forceful character in his own book, with pronounced opinions: one way or the other, it’s difficult, as a reader, to remain neutral about him. For all my admiration for his achievement, I found it irritating to see the ways in which he constantly denigrated writers of historical fiction – while maintaining all along that his own book was a novel. At one point, he asserts scornfully that ‘inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence‘ (‘Well,’ I said to myself on reading this, ‘that’s Dunnett out of the window for a start’). Binet is also offended by the fact that some authors dare to write novels in which historical figures are given emotions that there’s no record of them feeling; in which conversations are invented; in which they are said to drive a certain make of car, without evidence. He is particularly scathing, incidentally, about those who’ve previously written books on his own subject.

And yet, as I said, Binet wants his own book to be considered a novel. It’s very much a personal opinion, but I don’t believe this book is a novel (Bret Easton Ellis, whose comments are cited on Amazon’s product page, disagrees with me for a start). For me, if anything, it’s a lightly fictionalised history and, as such, it’s a very powerful and exciting piece of writing.  Sam Taylor’s translation is extremely good – pacy, vigorous and full of spirit. In some ways, I suppose that the book is so challenging precisely because it brings to light the fact that we adopt different ‘heads’ for different styles of writing.  HHhH feels fresh and unusual and exciting as a work of history, whereas as a novel I think I would find it frustrating. But is that a sign of Binet’s shortcoming as a novelist, or a sign that I’m too entrenched in my assumptions about what a particular genre should be like?  Does it matter what we call a book when it’s as original and moving as this? Towards the end, as everything converged on that curve in the road, I began to feel quite agitated and nervous, which can only be a testament to Binet’s skill in conjuring up the immediacy of something that happened seventy years ago – but which is still painfully relevant today, and which deserves to be better known.

Last weekend it was Remembrance Sunday here in England and similar ceremonies were recognised all over the world. Binet’s book is an act of remembrance as well as a history, and a testament of individual bravery. Without men like Gabčík and Kubiš, I might be living in a very different kind of Europe today.

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