Author: Laurent Binet / Translated by Sam Taylor
Genre: Historical, Fiction?/NonFiction? / World War II
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux / Harvill Secker
Publication date: April /May 2012 (first published in France in 2010)
Hardcover: 336 pages
HHhH: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”. The most dangerous man in Hitler’s cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the “Butcher of Prague.” He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of History. Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gab?ik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church. A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet’s remarkable imagination, HHhH—an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I have a new-found love for Historical novels about the Second World War. I heard about this book for the first time via this article on NPR but it seems this book has been talked about a lot in France since it was published (and where it won the prestigious Prix Goncourt for a first novel). Needless to say, I was MOST curious.
In 1942, two parachutists – the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabcík – are enlisted to carry out a secret mission: to assassinate one of the most important Nazi officials during WWII. That man is Reinhard Heydrich, head of Gestapo, the Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia A.K.A. “the hangman of Prague”, “the Blond Beast” and “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”. He was also to be the main architect of the Holocaust, and the mind behind the Final Solution.
Heydrich is Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man and everyone in the SS says that “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” which in German ends up as the acronym HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich).
This secret mission is codenamed Operation Anthropoid. Prepared by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) and the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, its goal was to not only eliminate one of the most vicious creatures in existence but to also give credence to the Czech government-in-exile, to show that the Nazis were not untouchable and to give hope to the Czech Resistance.
Heydrich dies as a result of his injuries and the mission is a significant moment of pride for the Czech Resistance, one of the very few successful assassination missions in the whole of the Second World War. It is also one that is met with swift, vicious reprisals by the Germans which included not only the death of the two men who carried out the attack, most of the men and women who aided them in any shape or form as well as the destruction of two entire villages and its inhabitants. Thousands of people perished as revenge for Operation Anthropoid.
Ostensibly, HHhH is the non-fictional account of the events that led to and closely followed, the assassination attempt. All the characters are real and all the events depicted are true.
But HHhH is also the story of the author’s research (books, films, first-hand accounts), his preparations for and the eventual writing of this book. As such, alongside the description of this true story, we also get to follow the novelist’s own struggle to write about this historical event that so haunts him (for he has admired these two men his whole life). His goal is to avoid making anything up so that he will not reduce the lives of these two men to a fictional – and therefore less substantial – account.
HHhH is not page numbered. It has 257 short chapters, the vast majority of them only a few paragraphs long.
By comparison, my own fascination about the Second World War is a new thing. I moved to England eight years ago and slowly but surely have become enamoured with this country’s sense of pride for their participation in it. I have watched numerous documentaries as well as read several novels on the subject. I admit that my knowledge thus far has been limited to the British and French fronts and I did not know anything about Czechoslovakia’s struggles or its Resistance movement. That is one of the reasons why I wanted to read HHhH.
I start reading. It’s only chapter one and something that the narrator says gives me pause. He says of Gabcík:
I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his action to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do?
I decide to carry on and for now I put any misgivings aside.
Most of the first chapters (in fact the vast majority of the book, as it turns out) is dedicated to the character of Heydrich – from his early life to his ascension within the SS ranks to the point where he becomes indispensable to the workings of the Third Reich with his limitless determination and complete dedication to Nazism’s ideals. We see the work he does with the Gestapo, the efficacy (and coldness) that he deals with the “Jewish problem” and how he takes over the running of Prague with duly effectiveness. Hitler himself seems to have a profound admiration for the man. I am not surprised: it is the meeting of two very similar monstrous minds.
Interestingly, despite his obvious horror and disgust for Heydrich (whom he thinks is the epitome of evil), Laurent Binet fully admits that Heydrich impresses him.
The narrator is going on about historical novelists and filmmakers that use “glib falsification” to mess with “historical truth just to sell their stories”. He also mentions the “nefarious power of literature”.
Part of me understands where he is coming from. Given the rich historical material he is working with, he does not wish to tarnish what is a profoundly affecting true story with any unnecessary inventions. How many times after watching a historical movie or reading a historical novel have I searched for further information on the subject only to learn that facts and events were misconstrued or completely made-up?
Part of me is irritated beyond comprehension: how many times have I read a profoundly impacting work of fiction based on historical events which are no less true in terms of art, humanity or importance just because they are fictional?
I understand the author’s journalistic struggle to retain nothing but facts but do not comprehend the need to browbeat fiction whilst at it.
I have started to wonder if the narrator is an invention of the author – and therefore a meta-commentary of historical non-fiction whilst actually writing historical fiction. A quick search online shows me two interviews with Binet (one with The Guardian, another with Kirkus) in which the author says point-blank that the narrator of the book and the author are exactly identical. Whenever I say the narrator, I am indeed referring to Binet.
I will bear this in mind as I progress. Moving on.
No, actually. I cannot move on just yet. What the hell am I supposed to do now? This is breaking rule number one of my reviewing process to never, ever dissect the author. But when the author is so enmeshed in the writing of his own book, I am left with no choice but to talk about him as well as his text.
Binet does confess that he will at times, invent dialogues. But that he hopes the reader will be able to see through them to the historical facts behind.
I find this really interesting: is he not really aware that “facts” do not history make? That interpretation of facts is always dependent on who is doing the interpretation? And that even first-hand accounts (which he seems to use as REAL!FACTS!) are quite often altered by who is the person telling this first-hand account and their own coloured perceptions, potentially faulty memory and their ideology?
Chapter 88. I just found out that the title of this book was supposed to be Operation Anthropoid but the publishers thought it was and I quote “too SFF, too Robert Ludlum” ( I can see them going “ew, genre reading PEASANTS should not touch this book”) and therefore not worthy enough. They decided to go with HHhH instead. Because it is more fun to go with an obscure title, I guess.
It’s interesting to note that even though HHhH is supposed to be a non-fiction account of those events, the book contains no references or bibliography.
For someone so bent on avoiding the traps of fiction, there are many passages such as:
It’s July 31, 1941, and we are present at the birth of the Final Solution.
You are now entering Auschwitz.
The problem for me with these passages is that they are extremely puerile to the point of cheesy but also very problematic. For someone who doesn’t want to embellish the truth with stupid fiction, this sure sounds out of place. Because WE are most surely NOT present at the birth of the Final Solution. Nor are we on our way to Auschwitz. Actually this is part of what really bothers me about the author’s apparent struggle to write this book. Part of me finds it truly fascinating, because I am hearing a first-hand (ha) account of how one can struggle to write a historical non-fiction book. Part of me finds this is in extremely bad taste especially considering what happened in Auschwitz, what was the Final Solution. So no, Laurent Binet. WE are not present at the Birth of the Final Solution nor have WE joined the train to Auschwitz. Get a grip, please.
How many times do I need to be told that Heydrich is the perfect Nazi-prototype (“tall, blond, cruel, totally obedient, and deadly efficient”)? I get it.
Chapter 111. Kiev. The massacre of Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were executed in two days with a cold-blooded efficacy that is truly evil. This is where the author’s simple, straight-forward writing truly shines. I am left horrified, disgusted and completely enthralled by the narrative.
The book finally reaches the point where Operation Anthropoid is under way.
The recounting of the events that lead to the assassination attempt and the terrible aftermath are told with short, simple, sometimes fatalistic (often foreshadowing) staccato sentences in present tense. It is VERY effective and I feel my heart beating as I turn the pages to see what happens next (even as I know what happens next already). In summation: it often reads basically like a Dan Brown Thriller. Oh, the irony.
It’s chapter 215 and I am becoming increasingly obsessed with this narrator, this Binet-NotBinet figure. The story is reaching its climax and yet he constantly loses focus and interrupts the narrative to talk about other characters and other non-related events…only to berate himself to get back on track. Is this a psychological attempt to protect himself from writing the climax of the novel (a coitus interruptus, if you will)?
It sounds so disingenuous because obviously, as the writer, he has complete control over his novel: he can delete and edit (and edit again) anything he wants. Or is this part of this persona?
I am almost convinced that the narrator is a construct, a character in this story. And yet, those interviews with Binet are always at the back of my mind.
I won’t go into details as they are best left to be discovered when reading the book but the mission is underway and a lot of things go wrong. The gun doesn’t work, they must use a bomb and Heydrich survives the attack and dies a few days later as a result of his injuries. It takes several days for the Nazis to find the culprits hiding inside a Church. It takes eight hundred SS men and a fire squad (to flood the Church’s basement) eight hours to finally beat them.
In the meantime, before they find where the two parachutists are hiding, the Nazis launch a country-wide search which leads them to a town called Lidice, which they thought – wrongly – was harbouring the two men.
The SS orders for the town were:
1.Execute all adult men
2.Transport all women to a concentration camp
3.Gather the children suitable for Germanisation, then place them in SS families in the Reich and bring the rest of the children up in other ways
4.Burn down the village and level it entirely
Which they carried out with the usual Nazi efficacy. This was a big misstep for Germany as Nazi international propaganda was never the same after these events: all over the world, people rose to remember the people of Lidice and several towns all over the globe were renamed after it.
The last chapter. Aha. I feel quite vindicated as the author succumbs to his fictional urges and makes up the first encounter between the two friends Kubiš and Gabcík. I personally love it – it gives a lasting, beautiful touch to an otherwise very dry narrative.
If you think this is a meandering, self-serving, navel-gazing boring attempt at a review then you should probably stay away from the book.
In the end, more often than not the author’s meta narrative drove me to distraction and I wholeheartedly disagree with many of his assertions. I did think that a lot of the historical narrative was needlessly cheesy.
Granted, behind all this I could indeed see, hear and feel Binet’s heartfelt attempt to do justice to these men’s stories. Although one could also argue that the author’s intention means nothing if the text doesn’t work. The author, on the other hand, thinks it means EVERYTHING and that his good intentions should forgive him for any wrong turns he takes with his work.
HHhH is a fascinating book in many ways and I do not regret for a moment reading it. I do not regret learning about the heroism and bravery of the people from the Czechoslovakian’s Resistance Movement. This book has affected me and I know I will be thinking about it for a long, long time.
That said, I don’t feel I can objectively rate it. Part of me is like: this is the biggest piece of pretentious crap I have ever read; part of me thinks: this is pretty good.
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
Part of the original draft of HHhH included Binet’s reading of the much acclaimed novel The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, a book that followed a similar topic and which was published as Binet was writing HHhH. But according to this article, “his French publisher, Grasset, redacted all passages concerning The Kindly Ones, apparently for fear of offending Littell’s admirers in the public, the press, and the académie Goncourt – which awarded HHhH its prize for first novels.”
The author allowed The Millions website to publish the removed passages and I include the link HERE as it provides a great example of how HHhH is written.
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Vanessa (Bookborne)July 16, 2012 at 4:41 am
When I read what the book was about I was excited, but after reading your review (which is highly entertaining) I think I’ll stay far away from HHhH.
Anne M LeoneJuly 16, 2012 at 5:40 am
Wow, what a review! Truly thoughtful, and yet fun, too. Though it sounds like HHhH isn’t quite my cup of tea…
AnaJuly 16, 2012 at 5:51 am
Thanks girls! I had a lot of fun writing the review! And if I am being honest, reading the book too. 😀
Jackie (Farm Lane Books)July 16, 2012 at 6:10 am
HHhH is my favourite book of the year so far and so whilst I don’t agree with many of the points you made I did enjoy reading them! I loved the fact he questioned everything he wrote – it has changed the way I look at historical fiction. I also love books that encourage discussion in this way and I think the fact you have mentioned the word “genius” is a good sign. I don’t think I’ll find a better book this year.
EmilyJuly 16, 2012 at 6:49 am
Thanks for the review! You might want to check out the book Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf — it’s a terrific book about a girl in Lidice who is taken to be to be Germanized.
AnaJuly 16, 2012 at 7:21 am
Jackie – Glad you enjoyed it more than I did! There is definitely something about that book…
Emily – wow, that sounds great, thank you, added to my wishlist!
Annabel (gaskella)July 16, 2012 at 8:32 am
I love your review! While I think I sort of enjoyed reading HHhH, I was intensely frustrated by it – well specifically the ‘narrator’ whether he Binet or not, I found him irritating, and getting in the way of a horrific, yet absolutely fascinating real story.
MarieCJuly 16, 2012 at 9:14 am
Love the review! I was mildly interested in reading the book, but I think I’m really on the fence. While the topic sounds interesting, I kind of get the feeling it’s like a Henry James book, a stream of consciousness narrative.
jenn aka the picky girlJuly 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm
I’ve been fascinated by this book since I first heard of it and definitely need to buy it. I like that you say you aren’t sure whether it’s pretentious crap or the best thing you’ve read. Obviously Binet has pushed some boundaries, and I think that can be not a lot of fun to read but interesting as hell when it comes to writing.
Creative nonfiction is an area I am a bit obsessed with – the idea that we can never really truly write pure nonfiction, even if it’s facts only, the way we present those facts shows our bias. It’s an evolving idea, but it sounds like one of which this author is intensely aware.
SheilaJuly 17, 2012 at 10:50 am
I wonder how much this book changes in translation? Would it be a better experience in its native language? I always wonder things like this when books are translated.
ChardJuly 19, 2012 at 8:14 pm
The FS&G (English) edition certainly does have page numbers (as well as numbered chapters).
EmilyJuly 20, 2012 at 1:15 pm
I haven’t read this book, but just your review makes me gnash my teeth. Mostly because the author derides all forms of historical fiction and then turns around to say he’ll be including fictional conversations between historical characters. Which is a valid technique (Thucydides, one of the “fathers” of history was infamous for it), but it *really* bothers me that he doesn’t see the irony in making those two statements. That the author seems determined to disassociate himself from yucky literature while simultaneously making use of tried and true fictional techniques used to TELL HISTORY just makes me fume.
Laurent BinetJuly 23, 2012 at 11:49 am
@ana : I disagree with most of your remarks but I love your review. I found it witty, clever, funny. Well done !
@Emily : Believe me, I do see the irony.
AnaJuly 23, 2012 at 12:26 pm
@ Laurent Binet: wow. Thank you for stopping by and for leaving a comment.
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Julene VeartNovember 4, 2012 at 1:25 am
I read HHhH after being recommended it by a friend and before reading your review. Subsequently I’ve passed it onto another friend with the comment that I wasn’t sure whether he would like it as I found the story fascinating, but the narratives extremely and some of the repetitions contained therein very irritating! Therefore I found your review extremely accurate and very much indicative of how I felt. Like you, I feel unable to “rate” this book at all … parts of it I felt were genius and I enjoyed, but others were just dismal and distracting.