In theory, there is no reason HHhH should be as good as it is. Admittedly, it is based on an extraordinary historical event, the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich by two members of the Czech resistance in a Prague street in May 1942.
The true heroes of the book are the two resisters, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, who were trained by the British to kill the evil Heydrich, who is the central character. Heydrich was Heinrich Himmler’s right-hand man, and the title of the book refers to him, with the four H’s standing (in German) for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.
Himmler and Heydrich ran the SS, the Nazis’ most feared troops. They planned and organised the Holocaust, and masterminded any number of atrocities in Eastern Europe. Apart from all these historical figures, the author himself plays a central role in his story.
He shares his research process, his thinking on the writing of history and, along with other academic and personal thoughts, he is charmingly, sometimes humorously, inserted into the historical narrative. Why does Laurent Binet decide to do this? Some of his friends have told him: “It is exciting enough without you. Why do we have to hear your thoughts?”
When I asked him during his recent trip to South Africa to tell me about this structural decision, the 40-year-old Frenchman acknowledged this might seem “a bit pretentious”, but said he was interested in “the making of”, and thought the reader would be too.
The book has no page numbers, but is divided into 257 short segments, similar to those used by the Czech writer Milan Kundera, to whom he refers on the first page to make a point about the vulgarity of inventing a character. And this is the central message: the Nazis were so vile, so incredible, that one ought never to fictionalise them for fear of diminishing the horror.
Despite the placing of himself in the book and the many characters, he says the structure of the book was not preplanned.
“I was led by the story. I didn’t know what I would learn during my research, but I did know it had to end with the assassination, the crypt and the assault of the German force.”
Binet was determined to achieve factual precision. It’s an honest and reliable book. Using his musings on history and his research, he could “stress this point, and talk about it and discuss it with the reader”, he says.
He hates the fictionalising of history.
“I don’t think fiction can help you know history. I love Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and by reading it, if it’s your first experience of this period, you can understand some things. But if you want to go deeper, novels are limited.”
In his telling of this bit of history, Binet does what he speaks out against. He occasionally imagines scenes and dialogues between his key characters. He reconstructs history. A contradiction? Not really, because Binet tells you what he is doing, so it feels like a tease or a game. He writes a dialogue, then takes it away. Since he inserts himself in the book, he can warn readers of his intentions when he does this.
“There are fictional parts, but I specify when I’m speculating or inventing something. This is a true story.”
In the book he writes: “No, it’s not invented. What would be the point of ‘inventing’ nazism?”
- HHhH by Laurent Binet
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