HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhHTranslated from French by Sam Taylor.

HHhH stands for (in German) ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’. Heydrich was in charge of the Nazi secret service and the ‘protector’ of Czechoslovakia (where he was variously called ‘the butcher of Prague’, the ‘blond beast’ and ‘the hangman of Prague’). He was the one who organised Kristallnacht, came up with the idea of making Jews wear stars, and chaired the conference which finalised plans for the final solution. He was a scary guy. This book is about the assassination attempt made by two Czechoslovakian parachutists (Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis) who had been training with the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile in the UK.

But it’s not quite as straightforward as that. It’s also a ‘meta’ novel, in which Binet writes about the process of writing a novel based on real events, and how to be completely truthful when you can’t possibly know every conversation, etc, exactly. The chapters range from just one line to a couple of pages and it’s not completely linear.

The story about what happened around the assassination attempt and why it was so significant that they targeted Heydrich is actually really interesting. In that part of the book (towards the end), there’s also less of Binet’s introspective interruptions and the story is just allowed to be told.

Binet gets fixated on insignificant details like whether Heydrich’s Mercedes is black or dark green and it’s irritating. I suspect he’s doing it to illustrate that, in the end, it’s the story that matters, not complete historical accuracy in every detail. But there are also times when he will add a conversation or a detail and then admit they were made up or he’s just discovered it wasn’t true in the following chapter. It’s an interesting conversation about writing historical fiction generally, but, particularly near the beginning, there were times I just wanted him to get on with it. He occasionally refers to other films/books about the same events, but mostly to criticise their historical inaccuracy – which felt like was coming from a place of writerly insecurity on Binet’s part, rather than just snobbery.

Also, before reading this, I didn’t realise how much I liked to know how many pages there are in a book and what page I’m on. I have no idea why there were none in this book – it didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than to say ‘hey, I’m post-modern!’. I hate that kind of weird for the sake of weird thing; I’d have been fine with no page numbers if the omission added something.

All this isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. It’s an interesting conversation about writing historical fiction weaved into a fascinating story. It’s just that it’s a bit like watching a film for the first time with the director’s (sometimes narcissistic) commentary switched on – sometimes you just want to hear the story and want the director to talk less.

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2 Responses to HHhH by Laurent Binet

  1. Pingback: March reads (in-translation month) | mischief and miscellany

  2. Pingback: Burial Rites & Hannah Kent at Waterstones York | mischief and miscellany

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