HHhH by Laurent Binet
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)
Format: hardback via library, translation by Sam Taylor
From Goodreads: "HHhH: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”. The most dangerous man in Hitler’s cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the “Butcher of Prague.” He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of History.
Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gabćik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church.
A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet’s remarkable imagination, HHhH—an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history."
Here's what I think: .
This is so complex but playful but sobering but deft but messy that I'm having trouble knowing where to start. First of all, a factual thing - yes, the parachutists and their mission are followed in some detail, but this is really, I think, a novel about Heydrich. Who, if you don't know much about him, kind of sucks. Binet's account of his rise to power and absolutely single-minded ruthlessness is as chilling and nausea-inducing and gob-smacking as you'd expect, given that he truly was, as the synopsis says, 'feared by all and loathed by most.' Binet doesn't give us everything - well, it would take several volumes to give us everything - but he does enough. More than enough.
Mixed with that is the author-as-narrator voice, where Binet details his own growing interest in Heydrich's assassination and the ways in which he builds up information and impressions to turn them into this book. While I looked askance at this through the first third of the book - not because I object to the intrusion and inversion of traditional narrative, but because I was rolling my eyes at Binet's view of himself - I hit a point where the author-narrator comments were treasures. From then on, the book flew by and I hated to put it down. In my mind, he was assembling a bunker around himself of source materials, so that by the end he was fully immersed in each second of the attack and attempted escape. I actually came to care whether the Mercedes Heydrich was in was the black one in the museum, or green, as reported in a couple of earlier fictionalized accounts.
So now I'm changing my earlier statement. (Announcing this is a very Binet-like thing to do.) This isn't a novel about the Slovak and Czech who united under the Resistance to kill "the Butcher of Prague." It isn't a novel about how Heydrich grew into each of his terrifyingly well-earned nicknames, making him a most desirable target for assassination. It's a novel about writing a history, about Binet as writer and Binet as character, destined to make you think about him every time you encounter a historical account from here on out.
Read it, and tell me if you are as flipped over by it as I am.