Translated by Sam Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($26)
by Christopher Urban
Laurent Binet’s HHhH, a novelization of the assassination attempt of high-ranking Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich, is written with a postmodern self-consciousness that’s uncertain of its own authenticity. It proceeds cautiously from the very beginning: “Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist.” Composed of 257 short chapters, many no longer than a page or a paragraph, the novel, after many false starts, finally manages to retell the story of “the most dangerous man in the world,” also known as the Butcher of Prague, The Hangman, and The Blond Beast, among other dubious nicknames.
The assassination of Heydrich, code named “Operation Anthropoid,” was conceived by British special forces and involved two young French Resistance parachutists, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík—a Czech and a Slovak—who were asked to perform what would probably be a suicidal task. We learn, thanks to the double narrative of the novel, that this story was first told to Binet by his father, a not-yet professor of history, and, according to the first person narrator we presume to be Binet, it’s “one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War.” But for Binet, and therefore the reader, there are no easy answers surrounding this remarkable event. Nothing is taken for granted: not the interior life of long-dead historical figures, nor the color of the automobiles they drove, nor, least of all, the gimmicky devices found in the genre of historical fiction.
As it is with most great books, it’s hard to classify HHhH. It often seems to be as much about how to write a novel as it is an historical novel—a category that for the most part Binet parodies. The unnamed narrator that we take to be Binet constantly brings the action of the novel to a halt in order to interject his own thoughts and fears into a scene he’s describing or is about to. In these instances Binet speaks directly to us, not unlike the fictions of Milan Kundera. In fact, it’s no surprise that Kundera shows up on the very first page of HHhH:
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters . . . what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character?
Binet makes it clear from the beginning that he will not be a slave to verisimilitude—a silly, if not entirely futile notion for fiction to strive for anyway, or so he’d like us to believe. “In my opinion,” Binet continues, “Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?”
Kundera, a master of digression, loves the parenthetical remark—perhaps no punctuation is dearer to his heart. HHhH uses four parentheses on page one alone. Like Tristram Shandy trying to tell his life story only to realize that he hasn’t been born until Volume III, Binet’s goal of retelling Heydrich's assassination gets derailed from the very beginning. While the author attempts to convey the historical facts of Heydrich's murder, he feels compelled to tell us how he came to hear of the extraordinary event in the first place, of times spent abroad with his girlfriend, of the unnamed lady at the Army Museum in Prague, and, of course, of his own insatiable obsession with the all things World War II. “I devour everything I can find, in every possible language. I go to see all the films that come out—The Pianist, Downfall, The Counterfeiters, Black Book—and my TV remains stuck on the History Channel.”
This may sound annoying or superfluous, but these digressions are in fact the raison d'etre ofHHhH (“Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). Of course, it also helps that Binet’s thinly veiled autobiographical narrator is as entertaining and compelling as any voice in contemporary literature. We never tire of hearing the author’s artful, witty, and modestly confessional commentary, as he contemplates the book he’s writing, the one we’re reading: “Months flow past, they become years, and all that time this story keeps growing inside me. And while my life passes—made up, like everyone’s, of private joys, dramas, hopes, and disappointments—the shelves of my apartment fill up with books on the Second World War.”
Breaking down the fourth wall, Binet switches the action of the novel between historical Prague and present-day Prague, where the narrator visits “For the hundredth time.” Debates between Binet and himself occur constantly on the page, like whether or not to buy a rare book for his research purposes. Later, reminding us of that same book, he says: “Here more than for any other section, that extremely rare and costly tome would undoubtedly have been a great help.” And just as the reader learns the fateful curve in the road where the parachutist Kubiš and Gabčík decide is the best place to attempt the assassination, Binet jumps in to tell us shamelessly, yet comically, that he’s “spending a few days on vacation in a beautiful house in Toulon,” where he nevertheless assures us that he’s “doing a bit of writing.”
The historical incidents of the novel are narrated with Binet not far from the background. His voice hovers over most of the true-life scenes, making the novel a kind of satire on historical novels, or—and as wrong as it sounds to say—a little like those popular “Drunk History” YouTube videos. For instance, Chapter 124 begins: “You don’t need to be head of the secret services to see that President Beneš is extremely worried.” Or when the narrator tries to imagine the home life of Heydrich, he ponders how the evil husband/father must have spent his free time: tea with the wife? Games with the kids? Or perhaps just “work on the Final Solution?” When Karl Hermann Frank is not sure what to do next at the hospital while visiting the wounded Heydrich: “Frank bites the bullet and rings Hitler.” And finally, in the passage below, we have the imagined mindset of Heydrich as the new Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. By switching point of view to the second person, Binet’s freestyle summary comes across as a sort of childish or insecure boast on Heydrich’s behalf:
You are strong, you are powerful, you are pleased with yourself. You have killed people and you are going to kill many, many more. Everything you do succeeds. Nothing can resist you. In the space of barely ten years you have become “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.” Nobody makes fun of you anymore. They don’t call you the Goat now—they call you the Blond Beast. You have undeniably moved up the hierarchy of animal species. Everyone is afraid of you, even your boss—a bespectacled little hamster, albeit a dangerous one.
You are sitting comfortably in your Mercedes convertible and the wind is whipping your face. You are going to work; you work in a castle. All the inhabitants of the country where you live are your subjects: you have the power of life and death over them.
Since we already know how the “real story” ends, most of the conflict in the book derives from the author in conflict with himself, uncertain how to handle various scenes, concerned about which bits and pieces to take out and which ones to put back in. As chapter 177 concludes: “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.” Nevertheless, HHhH excels where other historical novels, or novelized biographies have failed. Consider, as the narrator does, Death Is My Trade by Robert Merle. Of this fictionalized life of Rudolf Lang, chief architect of Auschwitz, Binet writes:
It’s obvious what the author is trying to do: find the causes, if not the explanations, for the path this man would later take. Robert Merle attempts to guess—I say guess, not understand—how someone becomes commandant of Auschwitz.
Binet promises never to succumb to such faulty logic. “I do not claim that Heydrich ended up in charge of the Final Solution,” says the narrator, “because his schoolmates called him ‘the Goat’ when he was ten years old.” Numerous works like the Merle book get mentioned throughoutHHhH (including the recent Jonathan Littell novel, The Kindly Ones), and are scrutinized by Binet for the presumptuousness of the details they claim as truth—details that no one could possibly know, such as what so-and-so was thinking at this or that precise time or how the expression on one’s face must have looked at a given moment in the past. It may seem like such details are beside the point, especially considering the subject matter. And yet, in light of this scrutiny, we learn to read HHhH with the same kind of intense demand for clarity and truthfulness that the author constantly brings to our attention.
As soon as the reader is provided with a brief description of a character’s looks or thoughts, the author may just as quickly take his words back and confess that he has no way of knowing if it’s true or not. It’s almost as if we can only believe the novel’s “divine details,” as Nabokov once called them, when they remain unquestioned, such as when Binet declares raspberry the color of a character’s lips. It’s so easy to see, then, when Binet’s guilty of the same fictionalizing as his predecessors, as when he describes Kubiš and Gabčík snacking at a safe house. He writes, “They let the biscuits melt in their mouths.” How, the reader may demand, could Binet, or anyone else, have known that? (Couldn’t they have devoured the biscuits before melting?) Perhaps Binet is only testing us, having some fun with the reader as he lets his own assiduous standards slacken just a little, for effect. As no mention of the “melting biscuits” in the proceeding chapters occur, it must be true. Yet we can be sure of the dread it must have caused him, whether or not to leave the detail in.
A number of historical aspects are retold more or less straightforwardly in the novel with an omniscient narrator that makes the presence of the author seemingly fade away. Here the book reminds us of the satisfaction historical fiction (or any fiction) can offer a reader: you feel like you’re there! This is especially true near the end of the novel, which depicts the parachutists trapped in the ground floor of a Cathedral surrounded by Nazi troops.
But if the reader is placed in the middle of these action sequences (a sensation heightened by the novel’s present tense, which gives said sequences a cinematic quality), then Binet, ever playful, wants us to know that he’s there too. During Gabčík’s escape from the botched assassination attempt he quickly becomes “lost in this maze of residential alleys” only to end up right back where he started, near the scene of the crime at Holešovice Street, before finally running towards the river. “And I,” Binet suddenly chimes in at the end of the paragraph, “limping through the streets of Prague, dragging my leg as I climb back up Na Poříčí, watch him run into the distance.”
Of all the screen representations of Heydrich that Binet encountered during his research, the most convincing one, he says, was a character in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a kind of composite of Heydrich’s existence that Chaplin could have only guessed at since little to nothing was known about Heydrich at that time. It’s no coincidence, then, that many scenes in HHhH are re-imagined with a kind of Chaplinesque flair, as when Kubiš makes a desperate escape on his bicycle after the assassination attempt:
He grabs the machine’s frame and jumps on the seat. Now, anyone who’s ever ridden a bike will know that a cyclist racing against a man on foot is going to be vulnerable for the first ten, fifteen, let’s say the first twenty yards after starting up, beyond which he will outdistance his opponent easily. Given the decision he’s just made, Kubiš must have this in mind. Because instead of fleeing in precisely the opposite direction to the one Klein is approaching from—which would seem the natural thing to do for 99 percent of people in a similar situation: that is, a situation where you must very quickly escape from an armed Nazi with at least one very good reason to want you dead . . .
The passage continues in absurdly funny prose characteristic of HHhH, as Binet goes on to suggest the possible reasons behind Kubiš’s escape route: “I don’t like putting myself inside people’s heads, but I think I can explain Kubiš’s calculation.”
It is difficult to be clever and sincere at the same time, but HHhH effortlessly succeeds at both. Mixed in with all the jokes and gags is an unmistakable earnestness of a writer trying to tell the truth. “My story is finished and my book should be, too, but I’m discovering that it’s impossible to be finished with a story like this.” And a bit later, he writes “I now know that this story will never truly end for me, that I will always be learning new details relating to the extraordinary story of the assassination attempt on Heydrich on May 27, 1942 by Czechoslovak parachutists sent from London.” In the last chapter, almost like a flashback, the two men meet for the first time on a steamboat bound for France. This short, dream-like sequence, richly told, starts the story all over again in a way that’s both haunting and mawkish, as if it were the beginning of the book that Binet could not bring himself to write.