Books | HHhH by Laurent Binet

Jim Morphy delves into HHhH the “brilliant, and highly-ambitious” historic novel by Laurent Binet.

In July 1941, Heinrich Himmler received news that the plane of a high-ranking colleague had been shot down over Soviet territory. Laurent Binet’s brilliant, and highly-ambitious, historical novel tells us that the Nazi reacted badly: ‘The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull’.

Binet’s girlfriend had wanted this sentence erased from the book. ‘You’re making it up’ she told him. He initially took the advice, seeing that he had no way of being certain about the symptoms of the panic: how did he know Himmler’s face had turned red not white? How did he know what the Nazi had felt? The author accepted he was guilty of writing something that was a perfect example of the ‘puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention’ that he himself so despised. He removed the sentence, and tried a few more-prudent variations. However, none of these were satisfactory, so there we see the original version in chapter 106 of the completed work. Fictional detail does add colour, after all, as the author says.

We know of Binet’s exchange with his partner not because he described it in a media interview about his much-hyped and award-winning debut novel. No, we know about it because in chapter 107, Laurent Binet, talking directly to the reader, tells us about the conversation. For you see, this isn’t your average historical novel. In fact, it’s perhaps not a historical novel at all: in the two-sentence 205th chapter of the book, Binet tells us that what we are reading is an infranovel, whatever the hell that is, the reader may well think.

HHhH by Laurent Binet review
by Laurent Binet
pp.366, Harvill Secker, £16.99

In essence, this is a novel of two parts: one telling a true story from World War II, and, interwoven with this, another in which the narrator provides a commentary on the writing of the story itself. Post-modern hi-jinks, indeed.

The historical narrative is centred on the Nazi who survived his aforementioned plane crash: Reinhard Heydrich, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich – Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich, said those that knew him and his more famous boss. Laurent Binet – that is, if we blindly trust his claim that there is a perfect equivalence between himself and the narrator – admits that he’s long been fixated with the Nazi: ‘with his larger-than-life, storybook aura, Heydrich impresses me.’ And, without doubt, the story of how ‘the perfect Nazi prototype: tall, blond, cruel, totally obedient and deadly efficient’ rose through Hitler’s ranks is darkly fascinating.

Having been dismissed from the navy aged 27, Heydrich went on to lead the Nazi Security Service, to be one of the architects of the Holocaust, and, at 37, to become Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, presiding over much of what had been Czechoslovakia. The unimaginable horror of his rule led him to be known as ‘the hangman of Prague’.

As Laurent Binet neatly describes, Heydrich’s notoriety marked him out as a target for the Czechoslovak President-in-exile Edvard Benes, desperate for a major scalp to provide legitimacy to his London-based Government. And here enter the book’s heroes: Slovak Jozef Gabèík and Czech Jan Kubiš. Binet tells us that these men are the ‘authors of one the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War’.

Following instruction from Benes, and training by British forces, the pair were parachuted into Prague in 1942 as part of Operation Anthropoid. They lived undercover, thanks to the bravery and ingenuity of members of the Resistance, while waiting for their chance to kill Heydrich. After the assassination attempt, the two then became the hunted. Their fates inevitably to be decided by gunfight. By the time of the book’s later chapters, it has become classic edge-of-the-seat stuff.

But telling the story straight was never going to be enough for Binet. The narrator muses interestingly about his neurosis in fictionalising real, important events. He discusses his literary and ethical concerns with previous cultural representations of Heydrich, Gabèík and Kubiš, and history, in general. Chatty descriptions of research visits to museums and landmarks provide both pathos and amusement.

Without doubt, many will dislike the literary games being played here. In particular, the narrator’s habit of correcting things he’s said earlier, as if it’s all been written in one take, proves one trick too far. But those willing to get on-board for the ride will be enraptured by where it takes them. Binet’s writing, translated by Sam Taylor, is clean and unfussy, even if his use of language brings little in the way of beauty. Indeed, rather a few too many plodding phrases have made their way into this (faithfully translated, we’re assured) book.

Quibbles aside, this is a magnificent effort. Laurent Binet succeeds so daringly, and so successfully, it is difficult to believe he has any of the self-doubt expressed in the narration. The author of this delight is surely a cocksure, literary upstart, and, for that, he is to be applauded. It is no exaggeration to say that this book will make many readers re-assess the way they read fiction, certainly that which is based on real events. Hear the rallying cry: the historical novel is dead; long life the infranovel.