- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp.
Against the Wall of History
HHhH is a unique retelling of Operation Anthropoid, which concerned the assassination attempt on SS-Obergruppenführer, i.e. very special bad guy, Reinhard Heydrich during World War II. For those uninitiated, Heydrich oversaw the Final Solution and the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe.
After reviewing Roberto Bolano’s The Third Reich back in January, and now with Laurent Binet’s HHhH, you’d be forgiven for thinking my obsession for Nazis has taken a turn for the worse. Or, that there’s a new fashion in foreign fiction. Though it might be entertaining to see how Orhan Pamuk might tackle Panzer movements, or how Mario Vargas Llosa’s Uncle Adolf and the Star might sell in the bookshops, thankfully, this is all just coincidence.
What does connect these books, however, is their unsurpassable writing. Ingenious and inventive, both Bolano’s The Third Reich and HHhH are knockout blows in the boxing match of genre-defying literature. Binet steps between styles with ease, toying with historical vignettes of well-known Nazis as young children, as the beau of a minor aristocrat, as disgraced officers forced out of the Navy.
Each well-written, engaging chapter is often then followed by interventions by Binet: “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me… To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.” Generally humorous, the style is off-the-cuff, but Binet manages to include important facts and figures as well as more personal updates: “Natacha [his girlfriend] called me a ‘little shit’.”
Binet also implies that if Heydrich came alive for us too, then we should feel just as ashamed. Doubly so when Binet recounts, perhaps half-mockingly, other events in just as engaging a tone, safe in the knowledge of their complete accuracy: transcripts, eye-witnesses, photographs, all corroborating what took place.
Operation Anthropoid was carried out in Prague on May 27 1942. Binet leads us through the facts, through the contemporary events in his own life, and through Heydrich’s early years and those of the Weimar Republic. The story does not make happy reading, but neither does Binet’s writing feel grim and sluggish like a misery memoir. In fact, flying in the face of adversity, his storytelling sells Heydrich in a somewhat unsettling way.
Heydrich is ubiquitous in the history of Nazi Germany: wherever Binet looks, he is there. He engineers a pretext for invading Poland; he orchestrates the infamous Night of the Long Knives; and plucks Adolf Eichmann from relative bureaucratic obscurity. (Eichmann goes on to facilitate the creation of extermination camps across Eastern Europe with perfect efficiency.) Heydrich is even shot down over Soviet Russia and manages to escape. As a historical figure, Heydrich looms large.
Despite this, Binet states that Heydrich is not the hero of his book. Hero is probably not the right word, but Heydrich does drive much of the narrative. On the other hand, Binet himself is a key figure too and he hints at this: “Sometimes I feel like a character… But no, I’m not a character.”
Instead the point that Binet attempts to emphasise is that he is not creating a devil in Heydrich, but merely revealing one. Hence his interventions: “I’m fighting a losing battle… I can’t tell this story the way it should be told.” Each word for Binet is a struggle: “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.”
What results, however, is an awkward success story. Unseasonably dedicated to fact and accuracy, positively frightened of omission, Binet has written a tale of Heydrich to defy most academic study. Moreover, Binet has managed to engage. His description is playful and joyous, at times even wrongfully celebratory, but always, always surprisingly on form.
As a deserving winner of the Prix Goncourt, HHhH is a fantastic read. As a dynamic assault on the genres of contemporary writing, HHhH must join that coterie of celebrated titles: it is unique.