A pointless review of HHhH
HHhH By Laurent Binet Harvill Secker, 327pp. £16.99
REVIEWS OF EXCELLENT BOOKS can feel pointless. They are packed with nuggets of information, prised from the cracks of the novel, that are best discovered while buried in their original pages. These shards are selfishly reproduced to serve the review: what more effective argument could be made than the utterly persuasive primary evidence of the book itself? In fact, you would be best advised to alight at the next full stop and get a copy of HHhH for yourself. You need read no further.
In a way, this is the main problem facing Laurent Binet in his new book. HHhH is Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague”, a man who physically and ideologically embodied the Nazi regime. His immediate superior was Heinrich Himmler, and rumours were whispered in the shadows of the Third Reich that “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” – in German, “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or HHhH.
The book traces the planning, execution and aftermath of Operation Anthropoid, the resistance’s successful plot to assassinate Heydrich in Prague, the city he commanded as Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. The two heroes of the novel are Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the almost unbearably brave assassins, but Heydrich, in all his horror, is the central character. “All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true,” asserts the book’s cover. And hence Binet’s dilemma.
He is attempting to write an entirely accurate piece of nonfiction while battling the impulse to unleash the novelist’s turn of phrase on the kind of drama only real life provides. No sooner does he win one small factual skirmish in his book than he loses a fictive flank.
This is not an attention-seeking device by the author. (Binet has as good as admitted that he and the book’s nameless narrator are one and the same.) He is obsessive about the event and about the minutiae of its milieu. This story, this history, refuses to be told in cold-headed prose. It ripples and flashes on the page; insights jump from Binet’s pen and into the mouths of his principals – and then the writer works himself into an indignant fury at his own crassness.
In one powerful passage, for example, we have Gabcik reaching his decision to join the resistance, and his last moments as he bids farewell to friends and family before leaving his home country, Slovakia, forever. It is quietly, desperately effective. A paragraph later Binet fesses up: “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet – a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him put on two coats, when perhaps he had only one . . . To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.”
If this all sounds conflicted and self-involved, it isn’t. Binet is desperately burdened by the horrifying thought that he won’t do justice to the heroism of Gabcik and Kubis, just two men in a vast resistance that stood up to the monolith of Nazism.
At the same time, he is terrified of turning the book into historical fiction. “Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence,” he writes. “Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom I’ve discussed all this: It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.”
So, instead, Binet holds his hands up at every shadowy juncture, at every supposition, in what he calls his “infranovel”.
What we are left with is utterly compelling and ruthlessly fascinating. It is a mark of the book’s calibre that even if you are familiar with the details of the plot you still turn the pages praying for a better outcome.
As the book approaches its denouement, Binet allows this fantastic, barely believable story to carry him and us along with it. In fear of portraying a particular version of events, he revels in the details he can lay claim to, with an almost stately detachment; it’s as if he is giving the barest stage directions to history. The zenith of this immense dramatic arc is Shakespearean in its scale and tragedy, a crucial point in the most compelling drama played out on a Europe-wide stage, with the fate of millions at stake, synecdoched to a bend on a cobbled Prague street, with four men, grenades and a gun that refuses to fire.
But then you know all this already. Because you got off at that first full stop.