From the archives May 2013: HHhH by Laurent Binet trans Sam Taylor

I reviewed this originally on my old blog in two stages – combined into one post here:

Halfway Hangups:

HHhH is the book du jour, the one that’s getting the blog-inches, mostly giving it glowing reviews. It won the Prix Goncourt in France, and Mario Vargas Llosa thinks it “magnificent.” For anyone who hasn’t encountered it yet, HHhH is the story of Operation Anthropoid, in which two Czechoslovakian parachutists were sent on a mission to assassinate Nazi poster-boy Reinhard Heydrich, ‘the hangman of Prague’.

I don’t usually write posts when I’m halfway through a book, but as much as I’m enjoying fascinated by HHhH, I’m having slight problems with it. The cover proclaims “All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true.”  But it’s a novel!  However you start reading it, and it’s all about an author – the actual  author? – who is researching Op Anth.  We have a story within a story, the author’s framing narrative, and his version of Heydrich’s life and the plot to end it.

The ‘author’ tells us about film depictions of Heydrich (including the rather brilliant Conspiracy with Kenneth Branagh).  He debates with himself about what to leave in the book, and what to leave out. His girlfriend berates him for writing a cheesy sentence which imagines Himmler going red with apoplexy.  He wishes that he could have written some better dialogue than documented discussions report.  All this makes me feel that HHhH is less of a novel, and more of a ‘making of’ type of documentary book.

I normally don’t have any problems with this kind of metafictional concept, I am a Paul Auster fan after all!  I am having problems reading HHhH as a novel though. It feels more like Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall which I read/reviewed earlier this year; that was a mixture of memoir and reportage – which is what HHhH feels like too. That added assertion that everything is true just adds to the non-novel feel.

All this adds up to HHhH being slightly hard going for me.  In the beginning sections, I spent far too much time trying to decide whether the author in the book is the real author, or a fiction, and maybe that’s why I’ve struggled slightly.  I’m nearly halfway through now and I won’t give up as the subject matter is too important to abandon.

  • So is this a novel, or is it a novelisation of a non-fictional topic, or something else?
  • Did you have any problems with this format?
  • Should I be bothered by this?

holy Histories:

If you don’t know anything about HHhH, you may want to read my previous post first which describes a bit more about it, and the halfway hang-ups I experienced reading this book…
… I’ve now finished it, and it was one hell of a story. I remain, however, equally fascinated and irritated by this volume – I still can’t call it a novel.

The true story of the plot to assassinate Heydrich was thoroughly gripping and actively told, mostly in the present tense which builds up the suspense well.  The portraits painted of Heydrich, Hitler, Himmler and the other top Nazis show them to be the monsters we know they were. But this is not just a straight-forward novelised account of Heydrich’s life and Operation Anthropoid. That is presented as an episodic novel within another novel following an/the author’s writing of the book.

This was where the book failed for me, because I just didn’t like the ‘author’, whether he is Binet himself or a fictional counterpart.

Heydrich’s Mercedes-Benz 320 Convertible B after the attack showing the tank grenade damage. By Unknown – This image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project.

In particular, I didn’t like his snarkiness about other authors who have written around the same subject, (not that I’ve read any of them, but that’s not the point). Jonathan Littell’s doorstop of a novel The Kindly Ones is put down as “Houellebecq does Nazism.”  He also criticises a 1960 novel by Alan Burgess called Seven Men at Daybreak for waxing lyrical about the flight which will drop the parachutists into Czechoslovakia. Hang on!  They’re both novels – they’re allowed to blend fact with fiction for the sake of the narrative aren’t they?  Binet’s ‘author’ raises himself above them …

Once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints. No ordinary novel would encumber itself with three characters sharing the same name – unless the author were after a very particular effect. …
… This must be very tiresome and confusing for the reader. In a fiction, you’d just do away with the problem. Colonel Moravec would become Colonel Novak, for instance, and the Moravec family would be transformed into the Svigar family – why not? – while the traitor  might be rebaptised with a fanciful name like Nutella or Kodak or Prada. But of course I am not going to play that game.

and later he says:
My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.

None of this endeared me any further to him.  I realise that this is all about exploring the role of truth in an historical novel, but I found it to be too clever for its own good and even a bit heavy-handed in going on about it so much.  (6.5/10)

However, you may have a totally different experience with this non-fiction metanovel. Here are a few other bloggers reviews to get a different picture: Just William’s Luck, Winston’s DadThe Only Way is Reading, and 366 Days, 366 Books.

One good thing from this reading experience is that I am now keen to read more WWII books and novels. Already in my TBR are two by Primo Levi for instance, plus Anja Klabunde’s biography of Magda Goebbels (the scene in Downfall when she gave her children cyanide pills – sends a shiver down my spine to even think of it), and Emma Craigie’s fictionalised tale of Hitler’s youngest daughter.

Source: Review copy – thank you.

Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor, HHhH (Vintage, 2012) paperback, 336 pages.

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