HHhH, By Laurent Binet
Killing Heydrich: Why not let the facts speak for themselves?
Sunday 27 May 2012
Laurent Binet knew what he wanted to avoid when he embarked on his debut novel, which is
about the assassination attempt in Prague in May 1942 of the head of the Gestapo,
ReinhardHeydrich, by a Czech and a Slovak, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik. Binet was adamant
that he was not going to fictionalise real events to fill in any gaps in his knowledge.
Indeed, his determination not to fall back upon his imagination becomes a recurring theme,
his interjections obstructing the flow of a mesmerising true story. While making reference to
other books, he often sneers at their improvisation. Yet he does the same, surmising details
that he can't have known. For example: "the commissioner approached, smiling".
Occasionally, he chastises himself for fabrication, but one suspects that these wrist-slaps are
only intended to remove him from suspicion elsewhere. His conviction that he is superior to
writers of historical fiction such as Alan Burgess, whom he demolishes bitchily, becomes
jarring. And if Binet was so averse to the idea of fictionalisation, why didn't he write a nonfiction book, with references? His lack of references is a cop-out and, because of his
antagonism towards others' fictional touches, his own glare noticeably: he writes that
Heydrich was yellow after his injuries, but as any doctor would attest, blood loss with no gall
bladder damage causes pallor, not jaundice.
The overall effect is that Binet and his thoughts and opinions loom large. He is not the first
writer to do this. For example, Geoff Dyer's non-fiction is discursive and meandering and as
much about his responses to a subject as about the subject itself. But Dyer is entertaining
while Binet is distracting.
Still, Binet's methodology and style can't detract from the facts about the rise and demise of
the man who became known as the "Hangman of Prague". Tall and fair-haired, Heydrich
looked Aryan, though he was investigated for suspected Jewish blood early on in his career,
because his paternal grandmother had remarried a Jew. During his rise to power, Heydrich
became Himmler's invaluable underling – the title of the book comes from the wartime
saying that "HimmlershirnheisstHeydrich", or "Himmler's brain is named Heydrich". He was
the head of the Gestapo, and Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, the occupied Czech
section of Czechoslovakia.
Binet includes some shocking anecdotes and facts. For example, a football match that the
Nazis organised in occupied Ukraine was won by Kiev – despite them being a man down (a
Nazi had broken one of their legs) and the Kiev superintendent warning the team that they'd
be executed if they won. Furious, the Nazis summoned professional footballers from Berlin
for a rematch, but were thrashed again. The Kiev team, save for three who escaped, were
executed. Near Kiev is Grandmother's Gully, a homely name for a place of terror, where,
within 48 hours, 33,771 naked and beaten Jews were forced to lie in a mass grave, and were
shot. In total, more than 100,000 were murdered there.
Binet's short chapters – there are no page numbers, just brisk, harrowing chapters – are
conducive to his style of snappily dispensing nuggets of information in lucid prose. Despite
his fussing about the nature of historical fiction, this is mesmeric stuff; history brought to
chilling, potent life.
Broken Record: A historical novel at war with itself.
by James Wood May 21, 2012 – The New Yorker
The American Ambassador‘s residence in Prague was built in the late nineteen-twenties by
Otto Petschek. The Petscheks were among the wealthiest families in Czechoslovakia, and the
mansion was lavish: long curving corridors, ornate bathrooms, a swimming pool in the
basement. The Petscheks were also German-speaking Jews, wise enough to foresee the
horrors that awaited them: they left Prague in 1938. When the Germans occupied the city in
1939, Nazi officers, with their unerring instinct for such things, seized the huge home, and
made baleful use of it until the end of the war.
As with many buildings in Europe, the Petschek villa is scored and crossed, like the hide of a
whale, with the history of its accidents. Last year, I spent some time in the house as a guest—
the current Ambassador‘s family and my family once shared an apartment building in
Washington, D.C., and we became friends. In Prague, my friend showed me something I will
not forget: he got me to lie on my back and peer at the underside of some piece of
ambassadorial furniture. There, on the naked wood, was a faded Nazi stamp, with swastika
and eagle; and next to it, quietly triumphant in its very functionality, was a bar-code strip,
proclaiming the American government‘s present ownership.
This is one of those ―telling details‖ which are also loudly allegorical facts: it would be hard
to imagine a novelist inventing anything better, and equally hard to imagine the historian who
would not covet this perfect concrete emblem. To what extent is the useful vitality of that
detail inseparable from its historical reality? If a novelist invented it, would it be somehow
worth less—morally speaking, aesthetically speaking—than if a historian authenticated it? I
take a special pleasure in recording its actuality, but I can imagine relishing it in a novel,
feeling that the writer had created a new reality—while being aware, of course, that an
invented reality is not identical with an actual reality. The French writer and academic
Laurent Binet, to judge from his novel ―HHhH‖ (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; translated by Sam
Taylor), is sure of his answer: invented facts—invented characters, for that matter—have no
place in historical fiction, and weaken it both aesthetically and morally. ―This is what I
think,‖ he writes. ―Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like
fabricating evidence.‖ There are at least two difficulties with this purism. First, it would
abolish most fiction; second, Binet has written a historical novel of sorts, a book that, if not
quite full of invented details, certainly uses invention. That Binet‘s solution seems obvious is
testament to the brilliant ease and fluency of his book: his historical novel makes use of
novelistic invention while apologizing for doing so. Binet has his cake and eats it, and gets to
cry over the spilt crumbs, too.
―HHhH‖ is about the rise and fall of ReinhardHeydrich, the monster whom even Hitler
called ―the man with the iron heart.‖ As Binet puts it, Heydrich is not the protagonist of this
book but its target; almost anywhere you look in the politics of the Third Reich, ―and
particularly among its most terrifying aspects, Heydrich is there—at the center of
everything.‖ ―HimmlersHirnheisstHeydrich,‖ people would say: ―Himmler‘s brain is called
Heydrich.‖ (Thus ―HHhH.‖)Binet seethes with hatred for this hateful man, who became head
of the S.D. (the intelligence service of the S.S.) in 1932, and planned Kristallnacht, in 1938.
Heydrich is most infamous, though, as the man who convened the Wannsee Conference, on
January 20, 1942, in an elegantly sombre villa on the shore of Lake Wannsee. It was at this
meeting of high-ranking civil servants and senior officers that the Final Solution was
proposed and formalized. Adolf Eichmann took the minutes, which apply a language of
almost disinterested sterility to the project of industrialized mass murder. Essentially,
Wannsee accelerated the Holocaust; at the beautiful memorial in Berlin‘s Grunewald S-Bahn
station, which calmly records the numbers, dates, and destinations of each of the city‘s mass
deportations of Jews (all of whom left from the station), you can trace this increased velocity,
post-Wannsee. But Heydrich had already had the opportunity to do some killing and
deportation of his own. As the Reich‘s Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia since late
1941, the ―Hangman of Prague‖ arrested thousands of Czechs, most of whom perished in the
Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp.
Many of those present at the Wannsee Conference lived justly shortened lives, and the most
abbreviated was Heydrich‘s. Four months after Wannsee, he was assassinated, in Prague, by
JozefGabčík and Jan Kubiš, two parachutists trained in England and sent from there by the
Czech government-in-exile. These two men, and the Czech resisters who helped them, are the
heroes of the book. It is a gripping story, told very well. The parachutists ambushed
Heydrich‘s open-topped Mercedes as it slowed to round a bend in a city street. But
Gabčík‘sSten gun jammed, and only Kubiš‘s quick response saved the moment: he threw a
grenade, which wounded Heydrich (who died a week later, from septicemia). Reprisals were
blind and absolute: the village of Lidice, near Prague, mistakenly thought by the Nazis to
have some connection with the parachutists, was burned to the ground, and nearly every one
of its inhabitants was shot or sent to a concentration camp. The assassins, along with five
other resisters, were hidden in a Prague church. When the Germans eventually discovered
them, the seven men held out for hours, against nearly eight hundred S.S. Storm Troopers.
None were taken alive.
In some respects, ―HHhH‖ is a conventional historical novel about the Europe of the
nineteen-thirties and early forties. As we witness Heydrich‘s rise in the Nazi system, and the
simultaneous preparation of Gabčík and Kubiš in England, we move through the familiar
stations of the period—Hitler‘s seizing of power, in 1933; the German occupation of
Bohemia and Moravia, in March, 1939; Chamberlain‘s appeasement; Wannsee; and so on.
Paragraphs begin with cheap exclamations like ―A bombshell rocks Europe: it‘s the
Anschluss,‖ or end with duff sentences like ―It‘s July 31, 1941, and we are present at the birth
of the Final Solution. Heydrich will be its principal architect.‖ But Binet‘s novel has a vitality
very different from that of most historical fiction. He has threaded his novel with a
contemporary story, which is the drama of the book‘s own making. ―HHhH‖ is broken into
numbered paragraphs, and the historical narrative is frequently interrupted by a Binet-like
narrator, who gradually discloses information about himself. His father told him about
Heydrich when he was a boy; he worked as a French teacher in a Slovakian military
academy. His girlfriend is called Natacha: ―She‘s French, this one, in spite of her name, and
the daughter of Communists, like all of us.‖ That last funny sentence gives a sense of the
charm of the narrator, who darts in and out of the historical material, commenting and
teasing. Of Heydrich, he tells us: ―This is the first aspect of his policy. There are only two:
the carrot and the stick. The stick comes next, although the dialectical balance between the
two is uncertain.‖ The tone is clever, witty, casually postmodern, both in its self-obsession
and in its confession of uncertainties. The narrator tells us that he has just watched the film
―Conspiracy,‖ with Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich, or laments that he has been unable to get a
copy of the memoirs of Heydrich‘s widow. He says that he could do a Victor Hugo, and
unleash a tide of novelistic information about Heydrich‘s birthplace. But ―there are two towns
in Germany called Halle, and I don‘t even know which one I‘m talking about.‖
These authorial interruptions harden around a consistent theme: the narrator dislikes the
conventional artifice of the novel. He tells us that for years he has been boring Natacha ―with
my theories about the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention.‖ He begins his book
with a kind of warning: JozefGabčík really existed, and Binet wants to pay tribute to him. But
he worries that, by narrating Gabčík‘s story, he is reducing the man ―to the ranks of a vulgar
character and his actions to literature.‖ By ―literature,‖ Binet means what Roland Barthes
sometimes just called ―Fiction‖—the whole realm of conventional fictional artifice, the world
of ―realist‖ color, and sentences like ―In the distance, a police car wailed by.‖ The narrator
understands that he will use some of these means himself, but offers the hope that ―however
bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able
to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.‖
The result is the book‘s captivating, paradoxical tone of playful fatalism. It‘s a book of
unconventionally conventional historical fiction, as if the author were saying to the reader,
―Look, I‘m doing the best I can to get at the historical truth, but I can‘t keep these little
rodents of novelistic artifice out of the structure: they are endemic to narrative.‖ And so we
see the novelist, writing about Himmler, use a rampantly ―novelistic‖ phrase like ―The blood
rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull,‖ only to draw attention to its
fakery, and to explain why he has left it in. ―I can‘t resist cheap literary effects,‖ he tells us,
when narrating the dramatic moment of the jammed Sten gun. And so he also writes,
dramatically: ―He fires, and nothing happens.‖
We are supposed to note these contradictions—they are part of the knowing fabric of the
book, part of its lively achievement, and part of its wise, or certainly clever, skepticism. But
there are deeper, less obvious contradictions, of which perhaps Binet is not always the allseeing postmodern master. It is easy enough to use a tacky phrase like ―The blood rises to his
cheeks‖ and then shamefacedly concede the tackiness: that‘s postmodernism-by-numbers.
And it is fun to announce that you won‘t do a Hugoesque number on Heydrich‘s birthplace,
because you don‘t know anything about it. But Binet does not seem aware that this trick of
giving the impression that he is thinking the book through as he is writing it is one of the
oldest tricks of novelistic verisimilitude: it is inseparable from the fraudulence of the firstperson narrator, who is pretending to be speaking to the reader off the cuff even as the novel
has been rewritten a thousand times by the laboring author. Binet decries the artificiality and
contrivance of most of the invented dialogue in historical fiction, and pledges, ―If my
dialogues can‘t be based on precise, faithful, word-perfect sources, they will be invented.‖
However, he continues, if that is so, they will function not as novelistic mimesis but as
parable: ―They will be either extremely accurate or extremely illustrative.‖ But he must know
that the latter is just as contrived as the kind of fictional dialogue he professes to dislike.
So there is invention and artifice on every page of Binet‘s novel. Some of it is transparent and
confessed, but most of it is hidden and unconfessed. At first, I assumed that Binet was aware
of both kinds of contradiction, and was playing a very deep game, in which the novel‘s
narrator is not identical with the author, and is only partly conscious of his own ―cheap
literary effects.‖ But, in an interview with the Guardian, Binet emphatically declares that he
is identical with the narrator, and that he always hated being told by schoolteachers to
separate author and narrator. And elsewhere, in pages excised from the novel by its editor
(and reprinted on the Web site The Millions), Binet attacks the fictionalizing urge generally,
and the French-American novelist Jonathan Littell in particular, whose ―The Kindly Ones‖
was narrated by a fictional Nazi criminal. Binet cannot understand Littell‘s urge to invent
things: ―I want to know how things really happened, so I expect him to tell me—at the very
least—when an episode is true and when it is his invention. Otherwise, reality is reduced to
the level of fiction.‖
But do Binet‘s announced scruples produce a form of historical writing that is morally
superior, in its air of confession and atonement, to the contrivances of the average historical
novelist? I am not sure. ―HHhH‖ is certainly more interesting than most of its conventional
rivals, but it also seems shallower than its more distinguished rivals. The book‘s finale is
exciting, and moving, too, but one has to overlook such vulgarities as: ―The parachutists
realize it‘s all over. They‘re screwed and they know it. . . . It‘s the Alamo.‖ Or this paragraph:
A freight train screeches to a halt. At the end of the tracks is a gate surmounted by a tower,
with a brownstone wing on either side. Above, you hear the cawing of crows. The gate opens.
You are now entering Auschwitz.
At such moments, the reader starts developing a few scruples of his own, one of which is: a
passage like this is neither good fiction nor meaningful historical writing. It is second-rate
sensation-mongering. If Binet is as doubt-filled about fiction, and as passionate about
historical witness, as he says he is, the scrupulous response would be to refrain from writing
fiction, or to do a kind of historical research that is not attempted here. An illuminating
comparison is with a novel like W. G. Sebald‘s ―Austerlitz,‖ which tells the invented story of
Jacques Austerlitz, a Jewish boy from Prague whose parents died in the Holocaust, but who
escaped that fate as a child on the Kindertransport, bound for England. Sebald‘s novel is quite
as self-aware as Binet‘s: it uses enigmatic, layered storytelling, along with photographs, to
produce something akin to Binet‘s meditation on fiction and the difficulty of writing history.
But it has a searching, unbroken intensity, a formal difficulty, even a forbidding quality,
thatBinet‘s very appealing novel lacks. When Binet ―does‖ the Theresienstadt ghetto in his
novel, he sounds as if he‘d worked it up from Wikipedia:
The first convoy left for Riga on January 9, 1942: a thousand people, of whom 105 would
survive. The second convoy, a week later, also went to Riga: a thousand people, 16 survivors.
. . . There is nothing unusual in this dreadful numerical progression toward 100 percent. It is
just another sign of the Germans‘ famous efficiency.
The cliché about German efficiency is pitched at the level of the dinner-party table, after a
few drinks. Sebald‘s passage on Theresienstadt, by contrast, is one of the most extraordinary
in contemporary fiction, a single ceaseless, breathing sentence, continuing without a period
for almost eight pages, minutely documenting, and indeed enacting, the relentless huddled
atrocities of that ghetto.
Curiously, although Binet performs like a postmodernist, he acts like a nineteenth-century
positivist, with an almost religious respect for ―reality‖ and the unsullied purity of ―how
things really happened.‖ He is suspicious of fiction, but not suspicious enough of the
fictionality of the historical record. If Sebald has a greater literary intensity, it may be
because he is more deeply, more yearningly pessimistic about the difficulty of historical
retrieval. His long sentence about Theresienstadt, for instance, is triply recessed: it is spoken
by Jacques Austerlitz to the novel‘s nameless first-person narrator, who then gives it to us.
And it is a description not so much of Theresienstadt as of H. G. Adler‘s book about his
experiences in the ghetto. In its ―almost futuristic deformation of social life,‖ Austerlitz says,
―the ghetto system had something incomprehensible and unreal about it, even though Adler
describes it down to the last detail in its objective actuality.‖
Unreality and objectivity belong in the same sentence in Sebald, which is why he could not
have agreed with Binet that ―inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is
like fabricating evidence.‖ There are times when it may be morally productive to employ
invented characters and invented facts. For instance, one cannot help flinching when Binet
writes, ―You are now entering Auschwitz,‖ or ―It‘s July 31, 1941, and we are present at the
birth of the Final Solution.‖ We are not present. And, surely, not you, and not we, but they:
people whose appalling fates we can imagine but do not share. The distance seems as
important as the proximity, and the inventing novelist may negotiate that doubleness more
effectively than the passionate documentarian.
It‘s possible to see ―HHhH‖ as part of a fashionable anti-novelistic movement, made popular
in the Anglophone world by works like David Shields‘s recent manifesto ―Reality Hunger,‖
and by the essays of Geoff Dyer. I share these writers‘ impatience with slack novelistic
convention. And I also have a good deal of fellow-feeling for the kind of hatred of fiction
that, like Roland Barthes‘s prosecutorial ruthlessness, is really a kind of inverted love (in
which you kill what you dislike in order to save what you idealize). But it is important to
defend both the fictionality of fiction and the ―reality hunger‖ of fiction, and to insist that
these are complementary literary needs, not incompatible superfluities. A proper
skepticismabout the truthfulness of fiction has no need of becoming a despair about the
possibility of fiction. Laurent Binet does indeed revitalize history—by fictionalizing it. He
cannot see this, or not all of it, and so he is not the master of the contradictions he ingeniously
treats in his book but is still helplessly enmeshed in them.
What a Ghost Wants
Michael Newton reviews HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor
Laurent Binet has written an excellent novel about the absurdity of writing any kind of novel
at all. HHhH retells the story of the assassination of ReinhardHeydrich, one of the architects
of the Holocaust, by two Czech special agents, JozefGabčik and Jan Kubiš, their subsequent
deaths and the terrible retaliation enacted by the Nazis on the Czech people, which
culminated in the massacre of all the inhabitants of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. The
first difficulty the reader runs up against is the book‘s title. At first, I wondered if the four hs
were an aspirated sigh or a last breath. In fact, it‘s an in-joke. The English reader has to wait
until nearly halfway through the story for the explanation, though the French paperback
jacket gives the game away. The title is an SS abbreviation: ‗HimmlersHirnheisstHeydrich,‘
or ‗Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich,‘ a mutinous but accurate allusion to Himmler not
being the brightest spark. It‘s also, in German, a rather poor gag: ‗HHhH‘ reads as ‗Ha
hahaha‘, the kind of mocking and mirthless laughter that one expects from torturers.
The second problem has to do with Binet‘s fastidious approach to his story, though it turns
out that his self-questioning method is also part of the reason for his success. His subject
matter unavoidably raises the question of how we may speak about unspeakable atrocity. The
mind can‘t easily process the sheer number of those killed in the course of the Second World
War. In such carnage, it‘s impossible to imagine the totality, the presence, the surfeit of the
lives lost. Yet it‘s not so much the complexities of writing about extreme cruelty and violence
that give Binet pause as an unease about the procedures of fiction as such. In writing about
real events, the novelist has to choose between being imaginatively true or true to life, vrai or
vraisemblable. Binet lays out the reasoning that leads him to reject ‗poetic truth‘ for
documented fact. It‘s a kind of renunciation, a surrender of the novelist‘s licence.
Preoccupied as it is with questions about the relationship between history and representation,
the novel seems to begin poorly, as Binet foregrounds himself as a character, the author of the
work, setting out his methods and perplexities, his intentions and compunctions. It‘s a matter
of courtesy for a reader to assume that every narrator is a persona adopted for the occasion.
But having read the book, I googled ‗Laurent Binet‘ and heard his answer to a question I had
hoped would remain unanswerable: as far as Binet is concerned, the narrator really does
equal himself, and we must assume that he‘s not being ironic when he says ‗no, I‘m not a
character‘ (‗je ne suis pas un personnage‘). Instead we hear about his real worries about real
rival books, about his real girlfriends, his real communist parents. But then a doubt starts to
nag: was he just playing with that interviewer?
Reality outstrips invention. ‗What would be the point of ―inventing‖ Nazism?‘ Binet asks,
while entangling himself in the constraints of his genre. He will and will not write a historical
novel, as if determined to have his cake and eat it. He despises the thriller, resisting the
excitements of a story of conspirators and assassins. So why didn‘t he just write a
monograph? He‘s written excellent non-fiction: an autobiographical book about his life as a
teacher, and more recently an account of François Hollande‘s election campaign.＊ Maybe he
resisted a straightforward historical account because the problem of evidence is one of his
worries, a problem he addresses by smudging the distinctions between fact and fiction. Yet
with a gripping story like this one, it‘s not clear at first why he‘s tying himself up in knots,
writing a novel while claiming to hold himself to a vow of documentary chastity.
The book soon turns out to be cleverer and more intricate than its opening sections suggest.
The po-faced narrator grows more and more human, revealed as fallible, or even inept, as he
changes his mind, rescinds information, revises the ‗facts‘. His story runs away from him; his
findings are contradictory; he forgets to bring in a major character; trivial – or maybe crucial
– details waylay him. He artfully lays his workings bare. It emerges that far from being too
scrupulous to write a novel, he‘s driven by a compulsion to fictionalise. In a book about
tyranny, he wants to resist the role of the artist as tyrant by undermining his own power and
questioning the author‘s authority. It‘s an impossible stance. His partialities are endearing:
the whole book might be taken as a declaration of love for Prague, for a Czechoslovakia that
no longer exists. His dislikes – he has it in for the ‗vile‘ Neville Chamberlain and is outraged
by the cowardice of the Munich agreement – are similarly winning. But beyond the narrator
and his reflections stands the incontestable actuality of Gabčik and Kubiš.
The great theme of resistance fiction is failure. Success was impossible; the act of resistance
was understood to be at the least a mark of defiance, at the most a preparation for some later
triumph. We know what the resisters didn‘t: that their enemy would be defeated, though this
would be an achievement they wouldn‘t share. The war wasn‘t won by assassinations and
victory wasn‘t assured by the small Western European resistance movements. The practical
ineffectiveness of rebellion is depicted in many novels and films, from Hans Fallada‘s Alone
in Berlin to Michael Verhoeven‘s The White Rose. Stauffenberg and the other conspirators of
July 1944 understood that their plan to murder Hitler and stage a coup was unlikely to come
off. Instead of success, there would be the recorded fact that they had tried. They played for
moral stakes, upholding their own decency, the reputation of their country, and perhaps the
idea of decency as such. For those of us who don‘t know whether we would be collaborators
or fighters, the resistance story offers both the tension of narrative and a defence of the
virtues of integrity and solidarity.
The quintessential example of the resistance genre is Jean-Pierre Melville‘s L‘Armée des
ombres, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel. In the film we‘re not just told that all the
characters will die, that they are already ‗shades‘ (ombre meaning both ‗shadow’ and
‗ghost‘ or ‗shade‘); we‘re shown the peculiar nature of one of their deaths. A young man,
Jean-François Jardie, goes to his end in prison, under a false name, his comrades convinced
that he is a quitter and quisling. He does so to help the others, but his selfless act will be
unrecognised, lost, with their believing him to be a traitor. Only Jardie knows that he has
done the right thing; he goes to perverse lengths to make sure that this will be the case. His
act is almost entirely futile: the man he wanted to help dies anyway. He only gains his own
torture. He guarantees his integrity to himself (and to the viewer): the story might make us
wonder whether such an existential gesture is enough.
Jardie‘s anonymous sacrifice raises questions that are central to Binet‘s novel. Hannah
Arendt returned several times to the Hellenic idea of the ‗shining deed‘, an act that would
grant a kind of immortality to the otherwise vanishing actor, in a world where only the gods
and nature were immortal. Such deeds manifested the noblest aspects of the best people,
those few heroes who would be remembered while others lived, died and were forgotten. In
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt tells the story of Anton Schmidt, a German soldier who
helped Jewish partisans. She mentions the notion that resistance against the totalitarian state
would invariably be rendered invisible, the good deed punished, the doer left nameless,
forgotten – only to refute it: ‗The holes of oblivion do not exist.‘ Schmidt‘s story shows, like
Gabčik‘s and Kubiš‘s, that even under such a regime, resistance is possible. Retelling their
stories does nothing for them, and everything for us. Their actions provide us with an
example, an indication of the capacity of human beings to do the right thing.
Yet who remembers that second exterminated village, Ležáky, the ‗Nagasaki to Lidice‘s
Hiroshima‘? Against such forgetting, Binet repeats what Achilles tells us: ‗A ghost desires
only one thing: to live again.‘ He wishes to summon up the lives of the daring but largely
forgotten dead, countering the elitism in the Greek ideal presented by Arendt with a
democratic appeal to the courage of common people. In the end you realise that the book‘s
many digressions are not digressions but signs of an expanding interest, a curiosity and desire
to record that keeps trying to draw more and more into the frame. The dead haunt Binet; he
hungers for memorials, wishes to let lost deeds shine. But in remembering Gabčik and Kubiš,
the facts compel him also to remember KarelČurda, the conspirator who betrayed them.
The book builds up to three cardinal crises: the moment of the assassination itself; the
retribution in Lidice and the rounding up of suspects; and the assault on St Charles Borromeo,
the church in central Prague where the conspirators holed up. Narrating these events, which
take up the last hundred pages of his novel, Binet is in masterly control of his material. He
sets down brilliantly the sheer thrill, the plunge into action, that the assassination represents.
The assassination itself exemplifies the contingency and haphazardness of such acts. The two
killers finally get to their target – and in the last second, as Gabčikaims, his Sten gun jams
and refuses to fire. The killing is botched, but happens anyway: a bomb thrown by Kubiš
completes the deed as we knew it somehow would. The assassins are pursued and get away.
But not for long: the book moves on at a grim, fateful pace. At dawn, on 10 June 1942, the
soldiers will come to Lidice; some weeks later, the assassins will be surrounded in Prague,
their deaths assured. Trapped in the church‘s crypt, they fight back, yet the end must come. It
was always already there, prefigured in the stated facts of the novel‘s first few sections. In
maintaining a sense that events might still turn out otherwise, Binet pulls off the most
difficult trick of the novel of historical reconstruction: we know the end, but grasp that the
actors themselves do not, are still there, living through the possibilities of events.
Binet‘s novel is a belated entry in a long-standing debate in French literature about the value
of violent resistance. In L‘Armée des ombres, the Resistance fighters kill only each other,
betraying their comrades and taking revenge for the betrayals. They throttle or shoot their
former friends so that resistance itself can continue, perpetuating the fact of refusal, while
hardly troubling, it seems, the occupying forces. It could easily be argued that Heydrich‘s
assassination was similarly pointless. A Nazi leader was killed, and another one replaced
him; the man who helped plan the Holocaust was murdered, but the Holocaust carried on. In
some sense his murder did little more than provide a pretext for the murder of many others.
Binet worries that Gabčik and Kubiš, knowing the horror of the Nazis‘ vengeance, might
have regretted their deed. He writes to reassure the dead that they‘re wrong.
‘HHhH,’ a Novel by Laurent Binet
NYT review ALAN RIDING - April 27, 2012
The nameless narrator of ―HHhH‖ has serious misgivings about the novel he is writing. Like
Laurent Binet, the book‘s French author, he has spent years examining the murder of the SS
general ReinhardHeydrich in Prague in 1942 with a view to retelling the story as a thriller.
But now he decides it is dishonest to invent descriptions, dialogue, thoughts and feelings on a
subject as serious as this. The best he can do, he concludes, is to provide a running
commentary on the truth (or otherwise) of what he is writing. ―I just hope that, however
bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story,‖ he writes, ―you will
still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.‖
He need not sound apologetic. By placing himself in the story, alongside Heydrich and his
assassins, the narrator challenges the traditional way historical fiction is written. We join him
on his research trips to Prague; we learn his reactions to documents, books and movies; we
hear him admit that he sometimes imagines what he cannot possibly know. And, in the end,
his making of a historical novel brings a raw truth to an extraordinary act of resistance. This
literary tour de force, now smoothly translated by Sam Taylor, earned Binet the Prix
Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010.
To set the stage, Binet guides us through Heydrich‘s early years — his musical talent, his
brief naval career and his marriage to a Nazi sympathizer — to his rapid rise as a favorite of
the SS chief Heinrich Himmler. As the head of the SS security service known as the SD, he
showed a special gift for bureaucracy. ―His motto could be: Files! Files! Always more files!‖
Binet writes, adding nicely: ―The Nazis love burning books, but not files.‖ In all, Binet
concludes, ―Heydrich is the perfect Nazi prototype: tall, blond, cruel, totally obedient and
In September 1941, still only 37, he became interim protector of Bohemia and Moravia,
where he was soon known as the Butcher of Prague. His curriculum vitae included organizing
the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, forming the Einsatzgruppen death squads in
September 1939 and leading the January 1942 Wannsee Conference that put in motion the
extermination of Europe‘s Jews. In some Nazi circles, he earned the nickname ―HHhH,‖
―HimmlersHirnheisstHeydrich‖ — ―Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich.‖
Even as he writes, though, Binet (or the narrator) harbors doubts about his approach. He
recounts a conversation between Heydrich and his father, then reprimands himself: ―There is
nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue.‖ So he promises:
―And just so there‘s no confusion, all the dialogues I invent (there won‘t be many) will be
written like scenes from a play.‖ Amid myriad other digressions, he also finds time to opine
on movies and books about the Nazis — and there is no denying he has done his homework.
Still, Binet learns little about the early lives of Heydrich‘s killers, JozefGabcik, a Slovak
factory worker, and Jan Kubis, a Czech soldier. In their 20s, they were picked from a small
army of Czechoslovaks who had escaped to Britain in the hope of fighting to free their
country. (Germany had by then absorbed the Sudetenland, annexed Bohemia and Moravia,
and installed a collaborationist regime in Slovakia.) The men knew they were likely to die.
They did not know that Operation Anthropoid, as the plot was tagged, was driven by the need
of the Czech government-in-exile to impress Churchill.
After intense training, Gabcik and Kubis were given Czech clothes and new identities, as well
as British-made Sten guns. In late December 1941, they parachuted from an R.A.F. plane into
their occupied land. It would be five months before they were ready to act, but one thing
worked in their favor: Every day, Heydrich was driven to his office in Prague Castle in an
On the morning of May 27, 1942, as Heydrich‘s car reached a hairpin bend, Gabcik opened
fire, but his gun jammed. Heydrich jumped to his feet, pistol in hand, but Kubis threw a
grenade that wounded him. While the two gunmen escaped, Heydrich was rushed to the
hospital where, eight days later, he died of an infection. In reprisal, Hitler ordered the
execution of 10,000 people, but he later accepted a lesser revenge: the destruction of the
village of Lidice and the murder or deportation of its 500 inhabitants.
Meanwhile, along with five other resisters, Gabcik and Kubis hid in the crypt of a Prague
church. But their whereabouts was betrayed, and after a fierce assault by 800 SS storm
troopers, three of the resisters were killed and the others committed suicide. ―No one ever
manages to persuade them that Heydrich‘s death was good for anything,‖ our narrator tells
us, without admitting that he is speculating. ―Perhaps I am writing this book to make them
understand that they are wrong.‖
At the end of ―HHhH,‖ however, one intriguing question remains unanswered: Is this a true
account of how Binet wrote his book or did he plan its unusual structure from the start?
Either way, the result is a gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened.
Alan Riding is a former European cultural correspondent for The Times. His most recent
book is “And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris.”
HHhH by Laurent Binet – review
Does its po-mo surface diminish this true story?
James Lasdun - The Guardian, Wednesday 16 May 2012
A breezily charming novel, with a thrilling story that also happens to be true, by a gifted
young author amusingly anguished over the question of how to tell it … In principle there's
nothing not to like about Laurent Binet's acclaimed debut, and HHhH is certainly a
thoroughly captivating performance. Whether you find it something more than that will
depend on how you feel about the application of breezy charm and amusingly anguished
authorial self-reflexiveness to a book about the Nazi security chief ReinhardHeydrich, who
must be one of the most unfunny figures in recorded history.
It's about his assassination, specifically, and the undersung Czech resistance heroes who
carried it out; an angle that licenses a certain jauntiness in the tone. But Heydrich's icily
demonic character necessarily dominates the book, and his pivotal roles in the key atrocities
of the era, from Kristallnacht to the final solution itself, take up a substantial part of the
narrative. (He was Himmler's right-hand man, and the title refers to a piece of ponderous
Nazi waggishness: HimmlersHirnheisstHeydrich – Himmler's brain is called Heydrich). So
the question lingers: is the corpse-strewn story of Heydrich's ascent to head of the Gestapo
and "Protector" of annexed Czechoslovakia (where he earned his nickname, "the Butcher of
Prague") in any significant way enriched by its author's playful anxieties about his girlfriend,
musings on his dreams, or even by his more obviously pertinent struggles over whether to
invent the dialogue or imagine the inner feelings of his real-life characters?
The shifting nature of Binet's self-insertions, not to mention the very poised assurance of his
writing, makes it a harder question to answer than you might expect. At their crudest they
seem purely self-regarding: there to present him as an appealing type of slacker-scholar,
glued to the History Channel, addicted to video-games, given to amiably flip outbursts of
opinion, while also winningly obsessive over questions of micro-historical accuracy, and
obsessed with his own obsessiveness. Was Heydrich's Mercedes black or green? Which side
of the train did the exiled head of Czechoslovak secret services sit on during his clandestine
trip through Nazi Germany to set up the resistance networks in Prague?
Elsewhere the intrusions seem to be more about assembling an on-the-hoof literary
manifesto. Quick nods and jabs are delivered at the many books and movies that have
inspired or threatened Binet along the way. Techniques of various kinds are held up for
summary judgment ("faithful to my long-held disgust for realistic novels, I say to myself:
Yuk"). Madame Bovary is found wanting; Salammbô is praised. Milan Kundera crops up a
few times, and his light-footed, epigrammatic style is clearly a strong influence. By contrast,
the appearance of Jonathan Littell's Wagnerian, horror-suffused reconstruction of Hitler's
doomed eastern campaign, The Kindly Ones, provokes deep consternation. "You might have
guessed that I was a bit disturbed by the publication of Jonathan Littell's novel, and by its
success …" After handing it some faint praise, Binet finds the formula for what he really
wants to do, which is to see it off altogether: "Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones
is simply 'Houellebecq does nazism'."
On this note, it's worth saying that although Littell's book has serious flaws, it does attempt to
feel its way into the inner psychological textures of nazism, whereas Binet tends to settle for
the simpler procedure of external caricature: "rodent-faced" Himmler, Rohm "like a pig". The
problem with this approach becomes apparent in his description of Heydrich himself, whose
"negroid" lips and "hooked" nose – offered up as evidence against his reputed Aryan good
looks – raise the unintended suggestion that if he'd only been a bit more perfectly Teutonic he
might not have been so evil.
Sometimes – more interestingly – the interventions function as a kind of Greek chorus to the
drama of stately, fateful convergence between Heydrich and his assassins as they move
through time and space toward the bend in the Prague street in May of 1942, where the
momentous encounter takes place. Exhorting his heroes to action, ruminating on the
contingencies of history, opening unexpected global vistas out of small intimate moments, the
otherwise slightly ingratiating narrative voice becomes at once more reticent and more
resonant in these passages, its excitable tones serving the real grandeur of the story rather
than the fretfulness of its author.
And it really is a great story; a tale of astounding courage worthy of Binet's claim – "one of
the greatest acts of resistance in human history" – and certainly powerful enough, in the end,
to overcome whatever qualms one might have about the telling. It isn't that Binet brings any
major new information to light, but he marshals and deploys his materials with exceptional
In order for his climactic scenes – a cascade of triumphs, near-disasters and outright
catastrophes, including the reprisal massacre at Lidice – to make their full impact, quite a
complicated set of political and historical circumstances have to be laid in place. Aside from
the well-documented career of Heydrich himself, there are the more scantily documented
lives of the Czech fighters to be portrayed. There is the motivation for the dastardly traitor
KarelCurda to be clarified, the effect of Chamberlain's appeasement policy on the exiled
Czech government in London to be elucidated, the legacy of the original German settlers in
the region to be traced down the centuries and connected to Hitler's (literal) carpet-chewing
hysteria at the thought of Czechoslovak resistance to the Reich. There are crucial logistical
points to be reckoned with, such as the topography of Prague streets or the disconcerting
jamming tendency of the British-built Sten gun. Binet manages it all with beautiful lucidity,
and by the time you reach the book's devastating finale, it's this discreet storytelling mastery,
rather than the more grabbypo-mo flourishes, that leaves the deepest impression. "Kundera
does Nazism" – to adapt Binet's own phrase – may have been the aim, but the book owes its
real force to something more solidly conventional.
HHhH by Laurent Binet – review
By Rosie Goldsmith - 17 July 2012, New Statesmen
This is a superb book, a fresh and fascinating account of the 1942 assassination attempt by
two brave Czechoslovaks on the "Butcher of Prague" and "Hitler‘s hangman",
It‘s also the story of how the French author, Laurent Binet, came to write the book. After
initial excitement about the mysterious unnamed narrator, Binet himself admitted recently
that they were identical. How he weaves his account of the traumas and thrills of writing the
book into his own quirky, impassioned history-telling is what makes this book truly original.
HHhH won France‘s Prix Goncourt Du Premier Roman in 2010; it arrives here in seamless
English and groaning with accolades from Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis and Mario Vargas
Llosa. It‘s being hailed as a new kind of radical-experimental meta-fiction and Binet
playfully calls it an "infranovel" but above all it is a highly readable reconstruction of history
with a lightness of touch belying Binet‘s years of research and neurotic obsession with the
"I must immerse myself in a period to understand its spirit", he explains in HHhH. He
confesses to imagining scenes and dialogue (after much agonising over the morality of this)
and to adding "the veneer of fiction" to a "fabulous story".
So the narrator is one of the main characters in the book. He is the son of a Jewish mother
and Communist father, a young teacher from Paris. In HHhHhe is investigating the truth of
"Operation Anthropoid", a story he first heard as a child. We hear how his long-suffering
girlfriends have to tolerate his fixation with ReinhardHeydrich, Himmler‘s number two.
Hence the title of the book: "HHhH" is the German acronym for "Himmler‘s brain is called
Heydrich". Blond, tall, clever Heydrich was the brain to Himmler‘s brawn.
The book begins with a tribute to the Czechoslovak resistance to the Nazis and it‘s refreshing
to read a writer who understands Czechoslovak history well. We are told that the two men,
JozefGabcik and Jan Kubis, one Czech, one Slovak, enlisted and trained by the British to kill
Heydrich, are the true heroes of this story, "the authors of one of the greatest acts of
resistance in human history". But their heroism is eclipsed here by the portrayal of the
diamond-cut brilliance and evil genius of Heydrich.
The protagonist of HHhH – or, as Binet calls him, "the target" - is the archetypal Aryan
Nazi, appointed Acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in 1941. Even Hitler referred to
him as "the most dangerous man in the Third Reich". He was born into a wealthy, patriotic
musical family in 1904 and became a talented violinist. He joined the German Navy aged 18.
After a couple of life-changing events – marrying the Nazi aristocrat Lina von Osten and
convincing Himmler that he was an intelligence expert, in spite of only having read English
spy novels - Heydrich rose quickly within the Nazi pantheon. He became head of the Gestapo
and a mastermind of the Holocaust and the Final Solution.
Binet wrestles with Heydrich, trawls through his childhood, marriage and womanising, gets
inside his head, until he delivers him up to us, the magnificent madman,"the Blond Beast",
ready to die.
The book is written chronologically in 257 short, breezy chapters as Binet‘s contemporary
research feeds into real events. At times he sounds like a manic PhD student, one day up, one
day down: "I read a brilliant book!" , he tells us, but then, "I‘m fighting a losing battle….I
keep banging my head against the wall of history."
He‘s witty too and enjoys pricking the pomposity of historical figures: Chamberlain is "vile
and stupid" and Heydrich has a "horsey face, high-pitched voice, well-polished boots". But
underpinning it all, there‘s serious analysis and new insight into events, such as the BabiYar
massacre, Heydrich‘s death and the stand-off in the Prague church when the two heroes are
cornered and later die.
The narrator is so immersed in events, that by the time he reaches the actual day Gabcik and
Yubis plan to attack "the target", he is fully inhabiting his characters: He is with Heydrich on
27 May 27 1942 as he is driven through Prague in his open-top Mercedes, his assassins close,
ready to shoot. Heydrich is 38, at the height of his evil powers. The night before he hosted a
star-studded concert of German music.Binet too is now at the height of his descriptive powers
and the final fictional showdown leaves you breathless. "While Heydrich‘s Mercedes snakes
along the thread of his knotted destiny . . ."
The gun jams,Kubis throws a grenade wounding Heydrich, who later dies. In retaliation
Hitler orders mass slaughter of the Czechs. At the end of his powerful story, the author is
exhausted, sickened by these events and "worn out by my muddled efforts to salute these
HHhH by Laurent Binet: review
Laurent Binet's brilliantly gripping 'HHhH' resets the path of the historical novel
By David Annand - 03 May 2012
Every now and then a piece of work comes along that undermines the assumptions upon
which all previous works have been built. Often impish and self-referential, and always as
eager to show their workings as any top set maths student, these pieces of art complicate the
genre for everyone that follows. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius did it for the
memoir, Reservoir Dogs for action films, and now HHhH does it for the historical novel.
Laurent Binet‘s brilliantly translated debut deconstructs the process of fiction writing in the
face of the brute reality of facts.
His subject is a daring assassination mission undertaken by two Czechoslovakian parachutists
in 1942: Operation Anthropoid. Its target is ReinhardHeydrich, ―the most dangerous man in
the Third Reich‖, according to Adolf Hitler. Heydrich is officially Himmler‘s number two in
the SS, but everyone in the organisation believes ―Himmler‘s HirnheisstHeydrich‖ (HHhH):
Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich. Tall, blond, clever and cartoonishly cruel, Heydrich is
the ―Butcher of Prague‖ and a perfect prism through which to reveal and condemn the
banality of evil.
Over 257 short chapters, HHhH recounts both the mission undertaken by JozefGabcik and
Jan Kubis as they travel from France to Britain and then on to Prague and their fateful
encounter with Heydrich, and also the mission undertaken by Binet as he tries to put together
an accurate account of two men whom he admires so much but about whom he knows so
little. This doesn‘t stop him being scrupulous about facts: he is forever scolding himself for
perceived flights of fancy. His aim is to produce what he calls an ―infranovel‖, one that is
constantly examining its own particular claim to truth.
If this sounds pompous, the book certainly isn‘t: it achieves a playful lightness with its comic
updates on the state of Binet‘s relationship and its bruising analysis of other accounts of the
period. And it is conventionally successful too, as both a gripping thriller and a moving
testament to the heroes of the Czechoslovakian resistance. Their mission reset the path of
history. Binet‘s resets the path of the historical novel. He has a bright, bright future.
Interview: Laurent Binet
July 27, 2013 - Jason Steger- The Age
A disdain for historical fiction led a French author to rewrite the genre's conventions with his
Laurent Binet'sHHhH is about the assassination of ReinhardHeydrich, one of the most
egregious of Hitler's henchmen, architect of the Holocaust, head of the Gestapo, protector of
Bohemia and Moravia, a man renowned for his intelligence and brutality.
But it is also about Binet, his angst about finding the right way to approach historical figures
in what may or may not be considered a novel and, at the same time, his dislike of historical
Binet was hoping for success in France. The book won a Prix Goncourt. But he never
envisaged HHhH would be acclaimed overseas.
We know this because as Binet re-creates the life of Heydrich and the inevitability of his
encounter with the two assassins, JozefGabcik and Jan Kubis, his book becomes a
conversation with the reader about his method and material.
It is a serious book that considers questions of fidelity in fiction and historical accuracy, of
literary theory, of moral responsibility in times of war. It is also utterly engrossing. And surprisingly, perhaps - it is playful.
But Binet doesn't sound very playful when he picks up the phone in his Paris apartment.
'''Allo,'' he barks, and it's obvious I have woken him. But he is happy to talk about the work
that obsessed him for more than 10 years.
It is not only the tone of HHhH - the title comes from the saying in Nazi circles that
Himmler's brain was called Heydrich - and the way in which Binet shares his own troubles
with the reader that are playful, but also the way he includes characters such as his various
What he wanted was to write a ''true'' story but discovered it was complicated. ''To be faithful
to character, to facts; not to make things up and to resist the temptation to make things up.
And so I felt it was an interesting problem and I decided to share all my thoughts about it.
And you could see all my doubts, questions. Instead of erasing my mistakes or erasing when I
couldn't resist the temptation to make it up, to use it for a discussion with the reader.''Binet's
father had told him the story of the assassination, and when he went to teach in Bratislava in
the late 1990s, he found out more.
He begins the book with an image of Gabcik but then writes: ''If I put this image on paper, as
I'm sneakily doing now, that won't necessarily pay tribute to him. I am reducing this man to
the ranks of a vulgar character, and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation …
I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous
story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.''
Whether the book is a novel is one of the many issues it throws up. Binet says he didn't call it
a novel, his publisher did. He quite likes the description of HHhH being a non-fiction novel,
but in the book he refers to HHhH as an ''infranovel''. By which he means the book uses all
the tools of a novel bar that which should be the main one - fiction.
He was chained by his decision not to make things up. So the structural problem he faced was
that he had significantly more information about Heydrich than the two assassins: if he
changed the story of Gabcik and Kubis, he would be betraying them, because they have been
in countless films and books.
This meant the book was ''not very well balanced because all the first part is about Heydrich.
I can't deny it. I was disturbed by that, but what could I do? I just hoped it could be
interesting to make the reader wait for the heroes to come.''
Since he didn't have a choice, he must have been relieved when he could finally write about
them. ''I was happy that they finally arrived, but I was frustrated not to know more about
them. You say I didn't have a choice. I had a choice - I could spend a few more years to make
more researches and to find more things on them, but I already spent 10 years to write the
So what is Binet's objection to historical fiction that prompted him to write HHhH in the way
he did? With novels or films, it all boils down to the question of truth; Binet always wonders
what was made up.
''I just wanted that with my book, the reader wouldn't have to wonder; they would know that
this was fact unless I mentioned that I made it up. There are a few parts that I made up which
I should have suppressed, but sometimes I left it and I just talked about it with the reader.''
He objects to what the French call a ''roman a these'', the novel that is trying to prove
something. Binet says you cannot prove anything with fiction. ''My half-brother said it in my
book. If you can fabricate fake evidence, then it's easy to demonstrate anything. This is my
problem with historical fiction.''
In HHhH, he takes issue with Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, which follows an educated
Nazi through World War II and won the Prix Goncourt.
He says Littell makes a parallel with the Greek myth of Orestes. ''I didn't really understand
the connection. Orestes is about remorse: he killed his mother. I don't see the link between
remorse and the Nazis; they didn't have a lot of remorse. And the first sentence: 'O, my
human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.' For me, it sounds like an attempt to say that
you and me are the same as the Nazis.''
He admits he has a contradiction because there are historical novels he admires deeply - War
and Peace, for example, ''but you don't read it to learn things about Napoleon''. He cites
Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate as ''a classical novel with invented characters meeting real
What he likes is that Grossman showed Stalinism to be as hard as Nazism, that he was very
close to his subject - the Soviet writer was a journalist following the Red Army in World War
II - and that he writes ''the impossible scene, the gas chamber. He follows someone from
beginning to the end.
''But I wouldn't dare do it. In my book, I just wrote a short chapter about a train going to
Auschwitz but stopping at the gates. I wanted to mean with that that I won't get inside
Auschwitz because I don't feel, as a novelist, I can.''
Binet adheres to his method to the end when Gabcik and Kubis and their comrades, betrayed,
are holed up in the crypt of the church of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Prague. ''I am not
Gabcik,'' he writes, ''and I never will be. At the last second, I resist the temptation of the
interior monologue and in doing so perhaps save myself from ridicule at this crucial point.''
He began to write the account of the final Nazi assault on May 27, 2008 (the anniversary of
the attack on Heydrich) and finished it on June 18, the date when the Germans prevailed.
''The idea,'' Binet says, ''was to make the reader feel that time is stretched.''
Binet writes that he is coming to the end and that he feels completely empty. He had lived for
so long with the characters and events. He wondered what he would do next. What he didn't
realise was it was not the end of the story.
''The best proof is that I am still talking about it to you. I thought I would move out of that
story and leave the characters. This is the reason of that last melancholic chapter. I don't want
to leave them. I imagine I am on the boat with them and that scene that I avoided because I
didn't know how they met. Finally, I just imagined how they could have met. It was a kind of
nostalgic ending, but I didn't anticipate that it was not over at all because of the success of the
Binet was hoping for success in France. The book won a Prix Goncourt. But he never
envisaged HHhH would be translated and acclaimed overseas. Now there is talk of a film.
And it has already been adapted for the stage. It was a very different beast, having only two
characters, Binet and his then girlfriend, Natacha.
I had asked him if she had minded being written into the book, but it transpired he didn't
check with her beforehand. ''She was happy, although our relationship at the time was a bit
complicated.'' She was much happier with the play. ''She was very very moved. More with the
theatre play than with the book because the play really focused on our relationship. In the
book, it's not such a big deal. I talk about her but only a few pages … It was very strange for
us both to see that.''
Since finishing HHhH, Binet has written a book about the election of Francois Hollande. Of
course, he has been disappointed by the Socialist President, but knew he would be - he grew
up in the Parisian suburbs with a Communist father who regarded the Socialists as traitors but
nevertheless voted for them in the round after his candidate had been eliminated from the
And HHhH is taking him around the world. He's off to a festival in Brazil and shortly to
Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival. I wish him good travels and apologise again for
waking him up. No problem, he says, cheerily.
Laurent Binet - Heydrich, history, and me
Galway Advertiser, April 18, 2013 ByKernan Andrews
AT ITS heart, HHhH, the debut work of French journalist Laurent Binet, is about
ReinhardHeydrich – head of the Gestapo and criminal police in the Third Reich, deputy
leader of the SS, and Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, administering the Nazi occupation
of what is now the Czech Republic – and Operation Anthropoid, the British backed plot to
Yet the book is not just a work of history, it is also a memoir, charting its author‘s fascination
with his subject and the lengths he goes to to assemble the information and track down
evidence, records, and documents.
HHhH is also about the process of writing history and the kind of challenges that poses a
writer. Where there are gaps in the evidence, do you let your imagination fill them in? How
far can you go without risking fictionalising elements of the story?
Although written with a novelist‘s sense of pace and feel for drama and atmosphere, HHhH is
clearly a work of non-fiction, popular history, yet look for it in bookstores and it is filed
under ‗novels‘ and ‗fiction‘!
Laurent Binet‘s imaginative, original, and post-modern approach to history writing has
produced a work which defies easy categorisation, but how does he feel about his non-fiction
work being branded ‗fiction‘?
―At first I was not sure I wanted it to be called a novel,‖ Laurent tells me from his home in
Paris. ―But I understood the marketing reasons my publisher had for doing that, that the book
would be easier to promote, so that is how I came up with the concept of the ‗infonovel‘. I‘m
also OK with it being called a ‗non-fiction novel‘.‖
HHhH is a very personal work, featuring episodes from Laurent‘s life; his love of Prague;
descriptions of his visits to museums, sights where various actions in Operation Anthropoid
took place; and his reactions to documents and photos, becoming as essential to the book as
the dramatic events around Heydrich and his assassins Jan Kubis and JozefGabcík. Yet never
does this become self-indulgent or distract from the breathtaking pace of the recounted
―Most of the time it is laziness from writers who use the convention of imagining themselves
as a narrator in the story – someone who is like them but who is not them, and feel that if they
use a narrator it is literature. I disagree. If I want someone to speak for me, why not let it be
me? Otherwise why would I bother?‖ says Laurent, who delights in breaking down barriers
between the reader and the author.
So while HHhH‘s narrator is clearly Laurent, and is truthfully autobiographical, he also
points out how the format can never allow a reader to gain a full impression of the author. By
the book‘s very nature, it can only display that part of him obsessed by history, thereby
highlighting the limitations of autobiography.
―The narrator is me,‖ he says, ―but only to a certain extent. I know in the book I must look
like a maniac and obsessive and very strict as I pursue the story, but I‘m not like that in other
areas of my life, so it‘s a kind of caricature of myself. It‘s like when I play tennis, you would
see another side of me that I‘m not always like.‖
Although Laurent originally intended HHhH (from Himmler‘s HirnheisstHeydrich, or
―Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich‖ an old SS joke) to be called Operation Anthropoid and
centre on Kubis and Gabcík, the ‗Blond Beast‘ Heydrich, one of the most appalling and
fascinating men of the 20th century, perhaps inevitably came to take centre stage.
―In the history of the Third Reich, at every stage, Heydrich is there,‖ says Laurent. ―I was
fascinated by his character in a literary way. He had this amazing story and destiny, and that
is what interested me rather than looking at his psychology and for the roots of his evil. It was
not my goal to explain the evil.‖
Laurent does not need to – he lets the facts speak for themselves. His accounts of the SS
Einsatzgruppen mass murders in Russia are terrifying as is the account of a woman holding a
baby up before Heydrich, only for him to dismiss her and have both shot. For the author,
these atrocities are emblematic of what Heydrich was.
―When he and Himmler visited the Einsatzgruppen carrying out their executions, Himmler
fainted and Heydrich was shocked,‖ he says, ―not from any mercy for the victims, but they
were worried about the mental effect it was having on the soldiers carrying them out.
―Heydrich was a bureaucratic murderer, working for the Nazis. When he chaired the
Wannsee Conference, where the plan for Final Solution and what they wanted to do to
Europe‘s 11 million Jews, was presented, it was treated like a business meeting. That says a
lot about Heydrich and the Nazis. It was a global/industrial project of genocide.
―Heydrich was also very ambitious. He was in charge of the Night of the Long Knives,
making sure to add the names of his own enemies to the list of those to be killed.‖
Laurent‘s daring approach to writing history deservedly resulted in HHhH enjoying critical
and commercial success first in France in 2009 and then internationally late last year, upon its
translation into English. Does he plan to pen any more such styled books on WWII or other
areas of history?
―You never say never,‖ he laughs, ―but I don‘t think there will be anything soon about the
Second World War. I need a break! My next novel will be set during the eighties, so it will be
history, but a little bit different, but I think I will always be concerned and interested by the
complex relation between history and fiction and I will work on it in a different way then in
Laurent Binet: 'Most French writers are lazy'
The award-winning author of HhhH on his literary Nazi hunt, having his debut novel hailed
as a masterpiece by Bret Easton Ellis, and why he wants change at the Elysée Palace
Interview by Killian Fox - The Observer, Friday 27 April 2012
A thrilling and formally daring novel about the plan to assassinate the high-ranking Nazi
ReinhardHeydrich in Prague during the second world war, Laurent Binet'sHHhH was a
literary sensation when it was published in France in 2010, winning the coveted Prix
Goncourt. Now translated into English, it's already attracting praise from the likes of Martin
Amis and Mario Vargas Llosa.
I first heard of your book when Bret Easton Ellis called it a masterpiece on Twitter.
You must have been pleased.
That was crazy. He's my favourite living writer so I was very proud. It was a wonderful
reward for my work, even more than the prize. American and English writers interest me
more than the French ones actually.
The author's struggle to write the novel is foregrounded in the text. But I could never be
certain that Laurent Binet in the book was identical to you…
He is absolutely identical. When I was a student I was always annoyed by the teachers telling
me you have to make the distinction between the author and the narrator.
So in the book, when you say you were inspired to write about the Prague plot after
hearing about it as a child from your father…
... that really was the inspiration. I wanted to tell the true story, including my own story. To
write a novel with just one level, without a metafictional dimension, wouldn't interest me
You set out to write about the two heroic men, a Czech and a Slovak, who plot to kill
Heydrich, but the central character is really Heydrich himself.
I can't deny this. It was not my purpose. The idea was to focus on the operation – my original
title, before my editor persuaded me to change it, was "Operation Anthropoid". But I had so
much information on Heydrich and he was such a fascinating character that he became the
centre. At all the turning points – all the key steps of the Third Reich – he's there.
Particularly the planning of the Holocaust. It would be easy to think of Heydrich as
That's true. At the same time I tried to be careful with that because he's a historical character,
so when you start to speak about pure evil it becomes very abstract and very unreal. That's
the reason why I was not a huge fan of The Kindly Ones [the Goncourt-winning 2006 novel
by Jonathan Littel which looked at the Holocaust through the eyes of a former SS officer]. It
was not a bad idea what he wanted to do – mixing Greek mythology and second world war –
but then I think you lose too much of the historical part. It's very precise and well
documented but at the end, the character in my opinion has nothing to do with a Nazi. He's
just not realistic, which is a problem for such a book.
What are your reservations about French writers?
Most of them are too lazy to search for new forms. Michel Houellebecq, for example, is seen
as a very subversive writer, but being subversive depends as much on the form as what you
speak about. Most French novelists are very classical, very close to the Balzac mode. The last
book of Houellebecq was applauded because he had the clever idea to appear in his book as a
character who is then murdered. But Easton Ellis did it in much better seven years ago with
Lunar Park. They feel very subversive because they speak about sexual crimes and things like
that, but Hollywood does it every day, so what's new about it?
How do you stand on the French elections?
Actually, my next book will be about the campaign. I'm following François Hollande, who
hopefully will be the winner. Five years of Sarkozy have been very damaging for many
people. I can't say personally I suffered as a result of it, but in a way I did. For 10 years, while
writing HHhH, I was teaching in high schools in the suburbs of Paris. It was a tough job.
Sarkozy didn't help because he was just cutting back on teachers. Hollande is promising that
there will be more teachers – this is reason enough to vote for him.But there are many other
reasons not to vote for Sarkozy – that obsession with poor people and foreigners. It's really
After the campaign book, do you have another project in mind?
Yes. I've started writing it already. I don't know what the result will be but I can tell you it's
very ambitious. All I can say is that it will be a kind of semiotic detective book. When I say
that, people usually stop asking questions.
Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’sHHhH
April 16, 2012 10
In 2006, a young American expat named Jonathan Littell published one of the most audacious
literary debuts in recent memory: a 900-page novel about the Holocaust, narrated by an aging ex-SS
Officer. It was called Les Bienveillantes, and except for a few German bureaucratic terms, it was
written entirely in French. (Littell had produced a cyberpunk novel in English at age 21, but
subsequently renounced it as juvenilia.) Given its choice of protagonist, Les Bienveillantes might
have seemed to be what marketers call “a tough sell,” but it went on to win the Prix Goncourt –
France’s most prestigious literary award – and to move some 700,000 copies. It was subsequently
translated into 17 languages, including English, where it became The Kindly Ones.
Meanwhile, a young Frenchman named Laurent Binet was tearing his hair out. Binet had been toiling
away on a work-in-progress that turned out to have striking similarities with Littell’ssuccès de
scandale. Where The Kindly Ones featured cameos from Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, and
ReinhardHeydrich and concluded with a physical assault on the person of the Führer, Binet’s novelin-progress focused on many of the same characters, and culminated in Heydrich’s assassination.
These resemblances were superficial, of course. Littell’s nervy postmodern update on the historical
novel had affinities with William T. Vollmann’s blend of research, pastiche, and hallucination. Binet’s
owed more to W.G. Sebald…and maybe Jacques Roubaud, insofar as he had already taken the step
of writing himself into the book. Still, he seemed to have landed in a writer’s nightmare, akin to that
of the studio exec who realizes in postproduction that a version his movie Armageddon has just
appeared under the title Deep Impact. What’s a good postmodern to do? Well, write that into the
Among chapters devoted to the plot against Heydrich and chapters devoted to his own research and
aesthetic anxieties, Binet began to interpolate passages covering, in real-time, his reading of The
Kindly Ones and his fears about what it meant for his book. These fears would prove unjustified; in
2010 his novel was published under the title HHhH (an acronym for “HimmlersHirnheisstHeydrich” –
“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). But his French publisher, Grasset, redacted all passages
concerning The Kindly Ones, apparently for fear of offending Littell’s admirers in the public, the
press, and the académie Goncourt – which awarded HHhH its prize for first novels.
This month, an English translation of HHhH arrives in U.S. bookstores, trailing blurbs by the likes of
Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, and Wells Tower. This edition, too, is missing the Littell material. But
Binet and his translator Sam Taylor have graciously allowed The Millions to publish the lost pages of
HHhH for the first time anywhere. Their tone of comical anxiety and competitive ardor – of wishing
at once for a colleague to succeed and to fail – will be familiar to many writers. Unsurprisingly, Binet
ends up judging Littell harshly, as did many American critics, including this one (although I should
confess that I still think about The Kindly Ones often). More important than their literary judgments,
though, or their portrait of the artist as a young man, are the still controversial questions about
representation and the Holocaust these pages candidly take up. Even relegated, as it were, to the
margins of the published work, these questions transform the historical thriller at the heart of HHhH
into a powerful meditation on the ethics of storytelling. – Garth Risk Hallberg
The Kindly Ones
Next to me on the sofa is Jonathan Littell’s weighty tome The Kindly Ones, which has just been
published by Gallimard. The (false) memoirs of an old SS veteran, it is nine hundred pages long.
Having created a massive buzz in the press, and sold out in most bookstores, this novel is crushing all
its competitors on the bestseller list. Not only that, but its success is apparently causing problems for
the entire publishing industry, as it is so long that it is lasting readers from September to Christmas,
so they aren’t buying any other books.
There is a savage review of the book in Libération, with the headline “Night and Mud.” But even this
review hails the author’s depth of research simply because Jon Littell uses SS ranks. Apparently, if
one writes “I caught a Scharführer by the sleeve: ‘What’s happening?’ — ‘I don’t know,
Obersturmführer. I think there’s a problem with the Standartenführer ,’” that is enough to produce a
“heady feeling of realism.” I’m not sure if the journalist who wrote this is being ironic or not, but I’m
afraid he isn’t. I remember having made a joke on this subject in one (invented) line during one of
my chapters on the Night of the Long Knives. But anyway…
One of the book’s severest critics is Claude Lanzmann (although he also recognizes its good
qualities), but according to his detractors, that’s because he believes himself to be the only person in
the world (along with Raoul Hilberg) with the right to talk about the Holocaust. I met Lanzmann
once: he is, in the flesh, a courteous man with an impressive presence. If you judge him solely on his
public statements, though, you might easily regard him as narrow-minded. In this case, however, I
think he shows great judgment when he criticizes Littell for his character’s “invasive psychology.”
Not a good sign. But he, too, acclaims the author’s research: “Not one error; flawless erudition.”
Well, all right, if you say so.
Apart from these examples, everything else is ecstatic. In Le NouvelObservateur: “A new War and
Peace”; in Le Monde: “one of the most impressive books ever written about Nazism.” And so on.
But the highest praise comes on the back cover of the book, where Gallimard has not skimped on
the name-dropping: Eschyle, Visconti, even Grossman’s Life and Fate. Talk about bringing out the big
Obviously, the book is up for every literary prize in the galaxy.
So I begin to read it, feeling simultaneously suspicious and excited. After three pages, my feelings
have turned to puzzlement. It is quite badly written, and yet at the same time it is so very literary.
This is not at all how I imagined an eighty-year-old SS veteran speaking or thinking. And, of course, I
am allergic to interior monologues, at least when we are supposedly talking about history.
I am saying all this now, before continuing with my reading, because I am sure that, when it comes
down to it, I am going to devour this book.
Let’s begin with the first line of Jonathan Littell’s novel: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how
I don’t like this line. But the point here is not, for once, my personal tastes. Let’s look more closely at
that opening: “Oh my human brothers.” With these first four words, we already know the book’s
thesis. By beginning in this way, Littell deliberately places his novel in the lineage of Hannah Arendt.
He is proposing the idea that evil is not the prerogative of monsters, but that it emanates from
people like you and me. I subscribe to this thesis, of course, but I fail to see how its validity can be
demonstrated in a novel. Even a nine-hundred-page novel.
From the moment when you create an imaginary character — a character who belongs to you,
whom you can make say anything you want (“Oh my human brothers,” for instance), a puppet
whom you are able to manipulate in any way you wish — it is easy and all too artificial to use this
character to illustrate whatever theory you have in mind. A character may illustrate, certainly, but it
cannot demonstrate anything. If you wish to suggest that the SS were sickened by the horrors they
committed, you make your protagonist vomit at inconvenient moments. If you wish to suggest that
the SS loved animals, you give him a dog. And then, to make it more real, you give the dog a name.
But what interests me about the SS — if I wish to understand something about that troubled era, if I
wish to extract something from all of that which can help me understand man and the world — is
what they did, not what Jonathan Littell thinks they might have done.
The problem with this type of historical novel is that it shamelessly mixes the true with the plausible.
That’s fine if I know about the episode in question. But if I don’t, I am left in limbo: perhaps this is
true, or perhaps it’s not.
I wonder how Jonathan Littell knows that Blobel, the alcoholic head of Sonderkommando 4a of
Einsatzgruppe C in Ukraine, had an Opel. And I wonder whether Lanzmann, before deciding that The
Kindly Ones did not contain “a single error, a single flaw,” checked this detail. If Blobel really drove
an Opel, then I bow before Littell’s superior research. But if it’s a bluff, it weakens the whole book.
Of course it does! It’s true that the Nazis were supplied in bulk by Opel, and so it’s perfectly plausible
that Blobel possessed, or used, a vehicle of that make. But plausible is not the same as known. I’m
talking rot, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.
Perhaps Blobel had an Opel, or perhaps he had a BMW. And if Littell has invented the make of
Blobel’s car, perhaps he has invented all the rest. The dialogue, for example. I find it surprising that
an SS officer could exclaim: “Il a pété les plombs!” *"He's blown a gasket!"+ Littell’s entire book can
teach me only one thing: how this writer imagines Nazism. And I am not really interested in that,
particularly when the depiction is so dubious. I want to know how things really happened, so I
expect him to tell me — at the very least — when an episode is true and when it is his invention.
Otherwise, reality is reduced to the level of fiction. I think that is wrong.
So, irrespective of the Opel question, Jonathan Littell’s novel — as compelling as it may be (I am still
at the beginning) — lost all credibility as a reflection on history from the moment its author chose to
use a fictional protagonist. Which is a shame because, after all, it does seem quite well-researched.
I will, of course, apologize if it turns out that Blobel really did drive an Opel. But fundamentally, it
wouldn’t change a thing.
Littell’s Portrait of Heydrich, p. 58
The courage of their convictions
HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor
HHhH is a prize-winning French novel about a writer writing a novel about the plot to kill the
Gestapo boss ReinhardHeydrich. A lot of people reckon it’s a big deal — Martin Amis, Mario Vargas
Llosa, me — so naturally there’s a backlash afoot. In a fit of territorial pissing disguised as an
interview, Michael Burleigh revealed that Laurent Binet ‘does not even read German’ (which HHhH
admits on page 28) and professed surprise that his research failed to take in a Heydrich biography
published (as Burleigh didn’t say) almost two years after HHhH first came out.
I suppose part of the problem is that Binet asks for trouble with clever-dick lines like this one: ‘This
scene is not really useful, and on top of that I practically made it up. I don’t think I’m going to keep
it.’ HHhH has two stories to tell in this self-aware style. One (pure horror) shows how Heydrich rose
to viceroy in what was Czechoslovakia. The other (lionhearted derring-do) describes the patient
tooling-up of the offshore resistance movement that sent JozefGabcik and Jan Kubiš to assassinate,
against almost impossible odds, the heavily guarded Heydrich as he drove through Prague on 27
May 1942. Binet reconstructs these events with help from memoirs, photographs, movies, museum
exhibits — and his own speculation, at which his lover is ever ready to scoff. It’s fresh, honest and
Read it in French if you can. This translation changes Simone Veil to Simone Weil, Tunis to Tunisia,
and Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent. Binet’s half-brother becomes a brother-in-law. Heydrich says 36
Jews were murdered on Kristallnacht, one more than stated previously. There are cuts as well as
slips. Our presumed ignorance or impatience may account for lost lines about, say, medieval
Bohemia; but why does Heydrich no longer vow to shove his deputy into a mass grave? Why no nod
to his ‘air of competence and authority’ as he announces a plan to deport Czechs to Auschwitz?Is it
so that we don’t think Binet’s a Nazi?
Far better to have HHhH in English than not at all, of course, yet more could have been preserved, in
terms of tone as well as detail. ‘You might wish to remember this. It turns out to be important,’
writes Anglo-Binet, after he mentions for the first time Gabcik’s ‘shit’ British machine gun
(‘unevraiemerde’), the shitness of which proves crucial. The parallel line is ‘Unevraiemerde,
tiensdonc…’ (‘A piece of shit, fancy…’), i.e. more of a wink than a finger-wag. The French expects you
to know the story already; the English worries you won’t keep up.
A finger-wagging tendency is latent here, to be fair. The second world war was ‘another age — one
where, each day, people eagerly look forward not to sports results but to news from the Russian
front’. Of Vichy, Binet asks, ‘How many World Cups will we have to win in order to erase such a
stain?’ You would never guess that he used to be a schoolteacher.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 12, 2012
Extract from a review of Hayden White and History by
The London Review of Books
…In his Preface to the collection, White locates the main problem in a development which his own
earlier Writings may, ironically, have helped to accentuate: this is the modern historian’s withdrawal
of confidence in the protocol of narrative. ‘Many modern historians,’ he writes, ‘hold that narrative
discourse, far from being a neutral medium for the representation of historical events and
processes, is the very stuff of a mythical view of reality, a conceptual or pseudoconceptual “content”
which, when used to represent real events, endows them with an illusory coherence and charges
them with the kinds of meanings more characteristic of oneiric than of waking thought.’ In taking
this attitude, White suggests, the modern historian is in effect reproducing a bias which has been
implicit in the process of historical reconstruction since the pioneering achievement of Herodotus:
he is subscribing to the belief that ‘history itself consists of a congeries of lived stories, individual and
collective, and that the principal task of historians is to uncover these stories and to retell them in a
narrative, the truth of which would reside in the correspondence of the story told to the story lived
by real people in the past.’ The crucial difference between the modern and the traditional historian
is that the latter happily engages in ‘stylistic embellishments’ to dress up the stories that he has
found, while the former wishes to expose such writerly accretions as being superfluous to the real
business of historical reconstruction. The modern historian wants to denounce the mythic character
of narrative, while at the same time taking for granted the implicit ‘story’ which it is his task to bring
Can narrative be disavowed in so disingenuous a way? White thinks not, and his argument is based
on the contemporary theories of discourse and ideology for which Roland Barthes served as an
eloquent spokesman. His first two essays consider, from different points of view, the question of the
adequacy of particular narrative forms for historical explanation. There is a conventional distinction
among historians between the ‘chronicle’ and the history proper, which amounts to claiming that
chronicles are merely imperfect, undeveloped examples of historical analysis. Yet how valid is it to
impose this kind of hierarchy upon two very different types of text? White takes as his central
example in the first essay not even a chronicle, but the apparently vestigial and anonymous Annals
of Saint Gall, where the only continuing thread of the discourse is the bare succession of years. Even
here, he suggests, there is no warrant for the view that the annals are defective or meaningless. ‘The
modern scholar seeks fullness and continuity in an order of events; the annalist has both in the
sequence of years.’ This leads him, in the second essay, to assert that the fully-fledged narrative
history of the modern period is neither more ‘literary’ than the chronicle, nor more exactly attuned
to the purposes of explanation (though the former interpretation would occur most readily to a
literary scholar, and the latter to a professional historian). Narrativisation works ‘by imposing a
discursive form on the events that its own chronicle comprises by means that are poetic in nature’. A
quotation from Barthes comes in handy here. ‘Narrative does not show, does not imitate ... *Its+
function is not to “represent”, it is to constitute a spectacle.’
The complete review's Review:
Historical fiction is, of course, the cheapest and most base form of fiction. In its reliance on the
personal, autobiographical fiction is at least transparent in its dishonesty, but by being (ostensibly)
grounded in the 'real' and based on 'facts' historical fiction has pretensions to so much more. Which
isn't to say that there can't be some value to it, from the pure entertainment value historical fictions
that simply try to recreate the past can offer (as well as the limited informational value of the more
well-researched ones), to the games authors can play with history, such as -- to cite just two
examples that Laurent Binet also discusses in HHhH -- Robert Harris' cleverly amusing alternatehistory story, Fatherland (where the what-if he posits is: what if the Nazis had won the war ?) and
Jonathan Littell's execrable The Kindly Ones ("simply 'Houellebecq does Nazism'", Binet summarizes,
in his two-birds-with-one-stone dismissal), whose premise of a fictional character in real situations
has great potential but fails entirely in Littell's hands.
Hedging his bets, and trying to make a point, Binet doesn't shape HHhH purely as historical
fiction. It is the story of the assassination of ReinhardHeydrich -- popularly known as everything from
'The Butcher of Prague' and 'The Hangman' to more-than-just Himmler's right hand man (hence also
the title, short for 'HimmlersHirnheißtHeydrich' ('Himmler's brain is Heydrich') -- but it is also the
story of the writing of HHhH. So, for example:
Through all the years that I carried the story around with me in my head, I never thought of giving it
any other title than Operation Anthropoid (and if that's not the title you see on the cover, you will
know that I gave in to the demands of my publisher, who didn't like it: too SF, too Robert Ludlum,
Obviously, the published title is a different one; whether it was actually 'changed' -- so the story
that is circulated, that it was done so at the publisher's behest -- or whether that is all just another
part of the novel(ist)'s game (i.e. he always intended to call it HHhH but wants readers to believe
otherwise) remains an open question. ('Operation Anthropoid' was the official name of the
The story of the assassination of ReinhardHeydrich is, no doubt an interesting one. (It is also, in
many ways, supremely uninteresting: everyone knows what happened, the facts are well-known
(and to those to whom they are not, they can readily be found from a vast number of sources), and
the story has often been told (indeed, Binet refers to and describes several different published
fictional takes on and movie versions of the same events).) Certainly, as literary subject matter, the
basics are undeniably good. As Binet notes, Heydrich is:
a wonderful character. It's as if a Dr.Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of
literature to create a new and terrifying creature. Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.
(But of course through this very exercise that he is undertaking, Binet is reducing (and puffing
up) Heydrich to a 'paper monster'.)
The rest of the story -- the assassins parachuting into occupied territory, the actual attack and
Heydrich's painful death, the manhunt -- is also action-drama of the highest order. And, just in case,
Binet pads it all with a good deal more Nazi horror, from the relevant -- describing the fall of
Czechoslovakia -- to the more peripheral, such as the horrors of BabiYar.
Binet takes a particularly odd tack early on that undermines much of what he is doing -- arguably
fatally so: he not only professes ignorance, but he goes so far as to present himself as almost
indifferent. He appears to be open about it, but it's still a very strange game he plays here. For
example, early on he announces:
I must admit that in this case -- regarding Heydrich's birthplace -- my knowledge is a bit sketchy.
There are two towns in Germany called Halle, and I don't even know which one I'm talking about.
Fort the time being, I think it's not important. We'll see.
Or he reveals that he hasn't sought out a copy of Heydrich's wife's biography of her life with him;
"So I should do without the book", he thinks.
Having laid this groundwork of how selective (and/or careless) he is in his research, Binet seems
to decide he can't leave it at that after all: he admits later that he has figured out which Halle
Heydrich comes from, and he does acquire a copy of LinaHeydrich's memoirs. So why the games in
the first place ? Certainly to place seeds of doubt in the reader's mind about his reliability, and his
interest in (some of ?) the facts; but to what end ?
Surely, for example, it should be clear to him and everyone from the outset that which Halle
Heydrich comes from is a significant detail if one is writing about Heydrich. One might argue that
Binet is only interested in aspects of Heydrich -- notably Heydrich as personification of Nazism,
rather than an actual person -- and hence he doesn't want to know his origins, or how his wife saw
him, but that is belied by his attention to other personal details about the man; here, as everywhere,
Binet wants to have it both ways (and winds up having it neither).
Binet remains torn between 'fact' and fiction. He wants to recount factually -- he's clear about that,
condemning Littell's approach by maintaining: "inventing a character in order to understand
historical facts is like fabricating evidence". But he's not entirely comfortable sticking to -- or even
seeking out -- the facts. While he does refer to and quote from documentary accounts, he also turns
repeatedly to film- and novel- versions of the events he recounts. Arguably, he is presenting his own
account as the alternative (or summation) to the actual documentary accounts, but he's careful not
to present it as serious or academic history: he emphasizes his amateur status in his stories of how
he comes across much of the information or his visits to the relevant sites. It's as though he doesn't
want to be seen as having authority.
Binet also admits, towards the end:
My story has as many holes in it as a novel.
Which begs several questions, including what his story is (he implies here, after all, that it's not a
novel), what exactly he was expecting -- and why he doesn't try a bit harder to fill the damn holes.
Ultimately, HHhH is a sort of Young Adult-introduction to the Nazis and Heydrich, an author
more than a generation removed from the time he is writing about describing how he learns about
these events and regurgitating what he learns -- in reasonably approachable and catchy form.
As Binet admits:
This story is personal. That's why my visions sometimes get mixed up with the known facts. It's just
how it is.
The style is YA (Binet is no stylist, and some of the writing is dreadful, but at least it's simple and
straightforward), and so is the presentation, the 257 short chapters and the fast-moving (back and
forth) narrative surely ideal for the short-attention-span generation. It is fine as that -- arguably even
However, HHhH is in no way an adult novel -- and given how serious the subject matter is (and
how the book has been marketed -- as serious literary fiction, no less) that is both dangerous and
Very early on, Binet mentions that he reads a great deal of historical fiction and admits:
I am struck all the same by the fact that, in every case, fiction wins out over history.
Perhaps he means HHhH to prove it can be otherwise -- but of course it can't. And why should it
? Fiction is (or can be) everything; history is mere history -- a banality. Both, however, should be
taken seriously -- and in HHhHBinet doesn't accord either the respect they deserve. The result is a
decent YA novel about Nazi horrors, and about learning about them, presented by an amiable, wideeyed, bumbling guide; it is not, however, a serious treatment of either Heydrich and the Nazis, or of
[Updated (10 May 2012): Anthony Cummins' review in The Spectator suggests there are
considerable translation and editorial issues with regard to the English version of the novel.
Comparing it to the French original (which I have unfortunately not seen) he finds numerous outright
mistakes ("This translation changes Simone Veil to Simone Weil, Tunis to Tunisia, and Birmingham to
Stoke-on-Trent"), and also notes: "There are cuts as well as slips". He suggests: "The French expects
you to know the story already; the English worries you won’t keep up" -- which may well address
several of the issues I had with the novel (though I suspect my fundamental disagreements remain
intact). Clearly, however, this is yet another example of how translation and editing (don't forget
that editorial interference !) can change a book (usually, I'd suggest, not for the better).]
- M.A.Orthofer, 1 May 2012