HHhH, by Laurent Binet

HHhH cvr

Laurent Binet’s HHhH tells in a roundabout way the amazing story of ‘Operation Anthropoid’, the 1942 assassination in Prague of Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak agents sent from London.  It is an odd title, which will make anyone seeing it for the first time wonder how it is pronounced – like expelling a breath perhaps.  Actually HHhH stands for ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,’ apparently a saying in the SS which means ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’ (Heinrich Himler being Heydrich’s boss).  Heydrich was as intelligent as he was ruthless and ambitious, but ultimately his complacent arrogance proved to be his undoing.

Translated from the French original, the book is divided into 257 sections, some comprising a few lines or paragraphs, others several pages, with the pages themselves unnumbered.  The episodic structure makes it feel bitty, and it soon becomes clear that we are not reading a standard non-fiction treatment.  In addition to the unorthodox presentation, the book features M. Binet, or at least a stand-in for him, discussing the progress of the book we are reading, and what he is trying to do.  It starts like an ill-fated collaboration between Jon Ronson and Antony Beevor or Max Hastings, but as the narrative progresses we thankfully get less of Binet’s personal life, and more of the events before and after the assassination of the Blond Beast by Czech Jan Kubiš and Slovak Jozef Gabčík.

As well as the attack on Heydrich itself we get information on those involved in the plot; the historical background to the German presence in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia of which Heydrich was Acting Protector (a word loaded with irony as his function was to safeguard the interests of the Reich); Heydrich’s personal history; that of other significant dramatis personae on both sides; the shameful way Czechoslovakia was abandoned by the French and British appeasement of Germany in 1938; and the way the Germans behaved once in control.  We learn too about the aftermath of Heydrich’s death: the fate of the assassins and the members of the resistance who assisted them, and the ghastly German reprisals on a massive scale, including the complete destruction of Lidice and Ležáky and wholesale executions.  As he accumulates research, Binet comments on fictional treatments of Heydrich, in print and on screen, and differentiates his own efforts from them.

Binet’s insertion of himself into the text foregrounds something that is normally hidden, so we can see what is involved in writing the book.  The manner in which the result reflects the complexities of history is a key consideration, as Binet balances his obligations to the dead with the need to shape a narrative.   He also confronts the tensions between writing fiction and non-fiction: he is suspicious of historical fiction’s falsifying treatment of its subject matter – ‘…fiction does not respect anything’ (92) – and wants his effort to be true to what actually happened, while knowing this is an impossible ideal.  We read a standard history book and assume that was how it was.  But we forget the creative role of the historian, forming the raw material into something aesthetic, fulfilling a personal vision, finding the right threads to be able to weave a tapestry that does justice to what it represents but does not burden the reader with so much detail the larger picture is obscured.

This creative element is laid bare.  Binet gives us facts, yet hesitates over them: ‘But I’ve said that I don’t want to write a historical handbook.  This story is personal.  That’s why my visions sometimes get mixed up with the known facts.  That’s just how it is.’ (91)  He immediately continues: ‘Actually no, that’s not how it is.  That would be too simple.’ (92)  He backtracks as he gets new information which shows what he has previously said is incorrect.  In terms of selection, he decides that ‘… I would rather jot down a useless detail than risk missing a crucial one.’ (180)  It’s a laudable intention, but the line has to be drawn somewhere, and the decision made between what is useless and what crucial; we will have different criteria for deciding between them.  With all these issues to be considered, HHhH is not the completed result of writing history, it is writing history, as Binet feels his way to something approximating what really happened.

The backtrackings highlight the difficulties of research.  They are not often included in books even though all researchers experience them, instead errors and wrong assumptions get edited out (well, in theory).  And you can see why: ‘I’ve been talking rubbish’ he says at one point, ‘the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination’ (35), while leaving the ‘rubbish’ in even after discovering that what he has written is incorrect. Why this: ‘At 9:00 a.m., the first German tank enters the city.’ (end of 83)  ‘Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague.  The most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars.’ (start of 84).  This is all redundant, and best left unsaid.

The inclusion of Binet’s thinking-through of these issues, showing us the scaffolding of HHhH’s production, does not make for a seamless reconstruction, especially when he tells the reader that something he has previously included needs to be amended or discarded.  It does though highlight what we mean by ‘historical fiction’, in which we normally expect a fidelity to the known facts, but within that framework accept elaboration, drawing out inferences in character and action to form an entertaining construct.  Certainly some of the techniques of fiction are here, including invented dialogue, though Binet is not slow to remind the reader he is imposing his imagination on the facts.  But using Heydrich as an example of the methods of the novelist demonstrates that fabrication is a moral decision.  Binet is clear he does not want to use his characters as pawns for his own purposes when the suffering was so great.  He acknowledges he owes it to them to respect their experience.  But then, if he disavows the historical novel while at the same time drawing on its style, he leaves the reader unclear to what extent this is a novel, and to what extent an idiosyncratic non-fiction history.

Binet’s approach indicates the degree of pain the biographer goes through in trying to get the details right, cross-referencing sources while assessing their credibility, even if he is indicating it while not seeming to do too much of it himself.  Fundamentally, you have to ask whether you can ever trust fully what your predecessors have said about something.  At what point does it become unimportant, for example is it really significant whether Heydrich’s Mercedes was dark green or black, something Binet agonises over?

There is quality and there is also quantity.  The scrupulous historian may want to be accurate in the details, even when they add nothing to the overall account, or may instead decide to leave them out as adding nothing, so the colour of the Mercedes wouldn’t even come up.  As Binet is all too aware, it is easy to become hung up by the desire to get it right to the point of paralysis.  A decision has to be taken on the amount of research, how much is enough.  He realises that at some point you have to go with what you have which gives him the freedom to complete the book, at the risk of adding inaccuracies into an already uncertain record.  Then after all that, the non-Francophone has to read it in translation, moving away from the original sources even more.

What allows HHhH to work is the sheer drama of the subject-matter, despite rather than because of Binet’s ambivalent treatment of it.  It is doubtful if his navel-gazing approach would have worked with anything less intense.  He gets away with it, and rather than something that could have been self-indulgent, it becomes a moving tribute to those who paid the ultimate price for their resistance to Nazi tyranny, ordinary working people who exhibited an astonishing bravery in the cause of freedom.  The story of the plot to assassinate Heydrich is fascinating, Binet isn’t, and the book would have been stronger had he jettisoned the novelistic devices and self-reflection entirely and written a fully-researched straight factual account.  He might not have garnered as much praise for his experimentalism (such as Bret Easton Ellis quoted on the back cover missing the point by calling HHhH ‘one of the best historical novels I’ve ever come across’, probably not an accolade Binet relished hearing) but it would have been a more satisfying account of this key moment in the war.

After these tortuous considerations the reader may wonder just how one would categorise HHhH.  Binet decides he is writing an ‘infranovel’ (205), but that isn’t very helpful, telling us what it isn’t (a novel) rather than what it is.  What it is is some kind of hybrid of novel and historical non-fiction, with a bit of personal reminiscence thrown in, plus thoughts on the writing process.  Said reader may decide that historical writing is essentially fiction anyway, only normally we don’t notice it because we assume there is some kind of correspondence between the facts of history and their presentation.  However it is pigeon-holed, it is questionable whether Binet’s foregrounding of what was involved in the writing it is really necessary.  The casual reader doesn’t need to know how a smooth narrative is constructed, the experienced writer knows the difficulties already.  History and postmodernism on this evidence make uncomfortable bedfellows.


Update 23 August 2017

On a recent visit to Prague I was able to visit the Orthodox church dedicated to Sts Cyril and Methodius, where those involved in the assassination of Heydrich made their final stand in the crypt after being betrayed.  The scars of the ferocious battle as the Germans struggled to dislodge the paratroopers are still clearly visible.  The entrance houses a very informative exhibition containing photographs, maps and other documents, film clips and artefacts, detailing the wartime occupation, the background to Anthropoid, the operation itself, and the appalling aftermath as the Germans took their barbaric revenge on the local population.  Exhibits are well displayed and captions are in both Czech and English.  The crypt has been turned into the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, a shrine to the seven-man squad, each member commemorated by a bust and with wreaths and flowers in abundance.  Perhaps as a result of the release of the 2016 film Anthropoid the place was crowded, but it was still a moving experience.  A visit is recommended to anyone who visits the city and wants to learn what being the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia actually entailed.

Sts Cyril and Methodius, Prague

I was also able to see the Operation Anthropoid memorial which since 2009 has marked the spot in Prague 8 where Heydrich was ambushed, the bend in the road where the assault took place visible as we went past on our way to Dresden.  The area is much changed, and a lot busier than it was in May 1942.  The memorial is remarkable, a 30-foot triangular steel column (corresponding to the triangular portion of the national flag) covered in rusted metal cladding, surmounted by statues of two paratroopers and a civilian, arms outspread as if ready to hurl themselves into action.  Apparently the posture is intended to evoke Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, referring to the meaning of ‘anthropoid’.  The inclusion of a civilian reminds us that the soldiers did not act in isolation: their mission required a support network, and they did not suffer alone.


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