HHhH is Laurent Binet’s first novel and it has already won a couple of prizes in his native France. The title, as you can see needed no translation – although as it stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, perhaps it does. ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’ is apparently one of those witticisms for which the Nazis were famous, and it is Heydrich’s life story that Binet seeks to tell in his novel. Or rather his death story, as the real focus is his attempted assassination by Czech parachutists. Except that one of them was Slovak – we’d better stick to the facts, something Binet very much insists on: though he is ostensibly writing a novel he doesn’t want to fictionalise anything:
“At 9.00am the first German tank enters the city.
Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague. The most advanced troops seem mostly to have driven motorbikes with side cars.”
HHhH, then, is also about Binet’s attempt to write a novel about Heydrich’s assassination without inventing anything. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” as someone once said (Twain? Hemingway? But that would be a fact so it probably doesn’t matter). Binet seems determined that they will. He begins by immersing himself in research:
“Months flow past, they become years and all that time this story keeps growing inside me. And while my life passes…the shelves of my apartment fill up with books on the Second World War….I get the feeling that my thirst for documentation, healthy to begin with, is becoming a little bit dangerous – a pretext, basically, for putting off the moment when I have to start writing.”
Of course, the opposite is true – it gives him something else to write about. In between slices of information about Heydrich’s life, Czech and Slovak politics, the Nazis’ rise and the move towards war, Binet inserts the jam of his authorial anxiety:
“There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue – reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history.”
Binet benefits from having a great story to tell – both the story of Heydrich, an emblematic Nazi and one of the primary architects of the Final Solution (our fascination with this era in European history can be seen from the fact that three of the ten long listed European books for the IFFP focus on it) and the attempt by to assassinate him (carried out by locals who were parachuted in from the UK). This has a little of everything – tension, bravery, disaster (even a jammed gun!), betrayal. Whether you enjoy this book or not will be very much down to your appreciation of Binet’s approach to this story.
While such ‘faction’ techniques are also to be found in Dasa Drndic’s Trieste and, in a different context, in Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque, here I found them less effective. It didn’t seem to allow Binet to reveal any depth of understanding of Heydrich or of the parachutists, or of any of the protagonists in the story – conversely he seemed quite intent in keeping his distance. He also didn’t involve his own life in any significant way – something that would have at least given the novel another dimension. Of course, perhaps I am a little spoilt having read the brilliant Frank Kuppner’s A Very Quiet Street and Something Very Like Murder many years ago – both excellent examples of this genre. Binet’s novel remains very readable (as I said, it has a great story to tell) but you can’t help but wonder, if he is so worried about fictionalising history, why write a novel at all?