REVIEW: HHhH – Laurent Binet

Vintage UK paperback edition cover

Vintage UK paperback edition cover

(Vintage 2013, translated by Sam Taylor; originally published by Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle 2009)

This is the story of Operation Anthropoid, a daring mission in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the SS and hated ‘Protector’ of Bohemia and Moravia. So high up the Nazi hierarchy was Heydrich (and so ambitious) that there was an acronym in the SS for his relationship with Himmler: HHhH – Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich. In 1942, the Czech government in exile in London sent two men to kill him, in conjunction with Czech resistance fighters in Prague: Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš.

HHhH is also the story of the author, how he has come to tell the story of the two men and their mission, how he has tried to tell their story without making up anything, and later, intertwines the experience of writing the book with the experiences of the men surviving a shoot-out in a church after the attempt on Heydrich’s life.

It’s an odd sort of book. Binet talks around the subject for some time, giving the reader information about how he found out about Gabčik and Kubiš, filling in the background regarding Heydrich and his life, and how he got to be in such a position that his assassination was attempted. There’s information about the mass killings in Ukraine – Babi Yar – and elsewhere perpetrated by the Nazis, and their effect on the men who had to carry out such despicable acts. He talks about other books, set at the time but written recently, and how their authors grapple with the problems of conveying accurately, in fiction, what really people said and did and thought. As a result, I’m not sure it works out altogether well, as fiction, since Binet is constantly obtruding himself into the narrative, pointing out where facts he’s stated in a previous chapter are actually incorrect, or where he’s made something up completely, like how Heydrich feels on realising that he’s been caught in a Russian trap.

It’s also told mostly in the present tense, which sometimes makes it tricky to distinguish between the points of view, and seems something of an affectation, since most of the events written about are firmly in the past. The text is also divided up into very short chapters, which make it ideal reading for commuting, or where one has to put down and pick up frequently.

It made rather a contrast to another book set at that time, and which takes in Heydrich’s death, which I read last year, Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale, one of his Bernie Gunther crime novels. In that, although Heydrich is a major character, it’s traditionally written fiction, where Kerr tries to show us what real people might have said and done, though since the novels are narrated by Gunther in the first person, it does keep us at a distance from the thoughts of real people, since Bernie is only guessing at those. In Kerr’s novel, the assassination is almost incidental to the main plot, although the activities of the Czech resistance do form a background to the main action – he also suggests (I am unsure how accurately) that the assassination attempt failed, in essence, and that Heydrich’s actual death was brought about by Himmler – apparently Heydrich’s wife, Lina, accused Himmler of murdering her husband.

However it happened, Binet would like to believe that Operation Anthropoid succeeded, despite its problems and cock-ups, and that’s the message he leaves us. He talks about the misplaced, awful reprisals – the inhabitants of a whole village shot – and the traitors and resistance fighters involved. It all sounds, at this date, horribly amateurish and imprecise, with men landed out of position, guns unreliable, bombs not exploding, and the Nazi response equally bumbling but subsequently lethal.

It’s an interesting book, if you can get past the tense used and the intrusion of Binet in the narrative. The translation appears excellent, with a few footnotes explaining things, usually people, to a non-French reader who may not be as familiar with them. I might have thought it more intriguing and unusual had I not read Prague Fatale earlier, though the two books are quite dissimilar.

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This entry was posted in 2014 New Reads, Fiction, Historical fiction, Read in translation, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to REVIEW: HHhH – Laurent Binet

  1. I loved this more than you did, I think — the authorial intrusions only made me feel fond of Binet, and more emotionally engaged with the story he was telling. It was one of my favorite books of 2014.

    • Ela says:

      I am not madly keen on novels which make you aware all the time of the artificiality of the medium, since I prefer to be submerged in the story. I did enjoy ‘HHhH’, but certainly not as much as you did!

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