By Laurent Binet. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp, hardcover
When it comes to World War II, what can we consider common knowledge these days? Every Canadian high-school student learns the basics—and Hollywood and the History channel do their part to keep it on the culture’s radar—but it’s so overwhelming, and so obviously, wearyingly important, that I wonder how much of it actually sticks. Presumably, we all know the major players. But what else? Can the average person name any battles that weren’t made into movies by Michael Bay? Does Kristallnacht need to be translated?
These questions keep bubbling to the surface when considering Laurent Binet’s HHhH, a historical novel that’s also part neurotic memoir about how hard it is to write a historical novel. Winner of France’s Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010, HHhH takes as its subject one Reinhard Heydrich: orchestrator of the Final Solution, second in command of the SS (the book’s title stands for the German phrase “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), and charmingly nicknamed “the Hangman of Prague”. He’s also the man who was assassinated, in broad daylight, by a pair of Czechoslovakian resistance soldiers in 1942.
The story of Heydrich’s death—which involves a busted machine gun, a fire hose, and a shootout in the basement of a church—is strange and captivating. But considering Binet treats his story like a newly unearthed fossil, presenting each piece carefully and plainly in sequence, HHhH only works if you’ve never heard of this man before. And even then, the author’s hiccupping running commentary about his personal life and writing process gets so far in the way that, in the end, you still can’t get an unobstructed view.
To his credit, Binet does appear to be a thorough researcher. On top of Heydrich’s biography, as well as that of his assassins, Jozef Gabćik and Jan Kubiš, the author seeks out (and then discredits) all kinds of media that have tried to tell Heydrich’s story over the years. These range from contemporary literary novels to propaganda films by the likes of Douglas Sirk and Fritz Lang. The latter of these, 1943’s Hangmen Also Die!, features an “ingenious” screenplay from Bertolt Brecht, but “represent[s] Heydrich rather crudely as an effeminate pervert”.
For the most part, however, HHhH relies on an intellectual framework that is itself rather crude. Binet sets up flimsy, outdated binaries between truth and fiction, and then spends the rest of the book nervously biting his fingernails and generally giving capital-H History way too much credit. It’s understood that writers will inevitably leave their fingerprints on the stories they’re telling, yet Binet is far too reverent, choosing instead to write his entire novel wearing a pair of thick rubber gloves. It shows.