The Man Within The Metafiction: Laurent Binet’s HHhH
- Laurent Binet
- trans. Sam Taylor
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 336 p.
In Laurent Binet’s newly translated novel HHhH, the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is a prism, refracting history into a spectrum of cultural, personal, and literary fragments. The reader is drawn into this elemental diffusion as well, bringing their own reflections and focus to the construction of history.
Before reading HHhH, what I knew about the assassination of the Nazi Reichsprotektor was limited to scraps of film images. Two Czechoslovak partisans toss a bomb into his open car as he rides through the streets of Prague, an explosion, and the tall Nazi standing up as if in outrage. Heydrich dies a week later from sepsis, caused by the car’s upholstery lodged in his body during the explosion. Of the men who carried out the attack, I remember only their end, trapped in the crypt of a church, besieged by Nazis and slowly filling with water.
The assassination, codenamed Operation Anthropoid by British intelligence, is an epic story in its own right, pitting a few men against one of history’s worst mass-murderers. Binet understands this as he sets off to retell the story, to do justice to these men, but he is also plagued by it, faltering before the specters of historical truth. Still Binet pushes forward, employing a technique of post-modern fiction by writing himself into the narrative and declaring the book a novel or, as he calls it, an infranovel.
True to novelistic convention, the opening paragraph establishes a protagonist, Jozef Gabčík, one of the partisans who will carry out the daring attack. But this is Binet’s first ruse––the novel won’t be so easy, or that is to say Binet won’t let himself off so easy. Instead he qualifies his minute fictionalizations, drawing attention to them and stating, “I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do?”
From there Binet backtracks and describes the beginning of his obsession with Heydrich’s assassination and all things Czech. In doing so he plays a clever trick, denouncing fiction yet using its most complex devices to nest his own life and research within the story, everything from girlfriends to websites to family history to Hollywood movies. This creates the narrative’s dynamic: at times jarring and in others almost sublime. For Heydrich’s life is as fascinating as Binet’s is banal and as the book unfolds, we experience them in a fractured simultaneity.
The novel’s title is taken from a popular saying in the Nazi political machine, Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich––Himmler’s Brain is called Heydrich. Heinrich Himmler was the supreme commander of the dreaded SS, and Reinhard Heydrich was his right-hand man, ubiquitous in the infamies of the Third Reich: initiating Kristallnacht, overseeing the Night of Long Knives, taking over the Gestapo and broadening its frightening reach, and creating the false flag attack Hitler used to justify the invasion of Poland. Heydrich formed the Einsatzgruppen death squads, who massacred Jews, communists, and Romany as the German army moved east. Most damning of all, he chaired the Wannsee conference where he, along with Eichmann and others, planned out the mass murder of Jews in Nazi occupied Europe using death gas chambers and crematoriums.
The ascendency of this cruel and calculating man is conveyed through short chapters, punctuated by relevant historical events: the Anschluss, the fall of the Sudetenland and the rest of Czechoslovakia, the invasion of Poland and the beginning of the World War. In doing so, Binet is as often glib as reverent. Many of his chapters end with quips, ranging from the flippant, “You can accuse Heydrich of many things but you can’t accuse him of not keeping his promises,” to the melodramatic, “You are Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubis, and you are going to make history.” In the interim he digresses: he talks about recent World War II novels (he likes William T. Vollman’s Europe Central and doesn’t like Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones) recounts his personal experiences dating a Czech woman in Prague, and admits to playing World War II video games. This can be distracting––a few times I stopped reading and checked the Wikipedia site on Heydrich––but as the narrative develops, it moves back towards its historic apex, the attack on Heydrich in the streets of Prague. And in those pages, perhaps flush with historical research and eyewitness accounts, Binet gives himself over to pure, unrestrained storytelling.
He opens the second part of the book, “The bomb explodes and instantly the windows in the tram are blown out,” and follows with an unusually long chapter describing the attack and its aftermath in taut, detailed passages. In these pages, Binet absents himself to a large extent, instead describing the flight of the assassins, the Nazi manhunt, and the final hours of the Reichsprotektor’s life. The metafictional quality only returns when Binet recounts the final stand of the partisans, trapped in the crypt of a church. What at times was awkward about Binet’s foregrounding is transcended in those culminating pages.
Kubis, Gabčík, and five comrades repulse wave after wave of storm troopers until the Nazis finally try to flush them out with water. Even then, the partisans fight until their last bullets, taking 14 Nazis with them before committing suicide, chest deep in the murky water. Each part of the eight-hour siege are marked with the days and sleepless nights Binet wrote them, wandering around the Prague of 2008, feverish with the vision of 1942. In this chapter, we are in both places, both times, not in an intellectual sense but in a work of pure literary art.
On the whole, though, it is hard to measure the success of this novel, if it can be called that. The author’s conceit is that “fiction does not respect anything,” yet we come to believe his voice and his constant quest for some form of accountable truth. In doing so he hides his indiscretions with a clever sleight of hand, capturing us in the oscillation between fiction and history until it is impossible to know what is what. But by the time Gabčík and Kubis take up positions to launch their attack we no longer care; perhaps Binet doesn’t either.
The true dilemma of HHhH doesn’t seem to be the accuracy of historical fact but rather the aestheticization of heroic and tragic acts, if we can use these terms. Binet seems less afraid he will get something wrong historically but that he will prove incapable of getting the story right, incapable of honoring the people who lived and died in its breadth.
In one of the last chapters Binet writes, “I think the world is ridiculous, moving and cruel. The same is true for this book: the story is cruel, the protagonists are moving and I am ridiculous.” Perhaps this is Binet’s ultimate point, that the truly epic events of history are always apprehended alongside the banal and ridiculous because it is through the historian or the novelist and ourselves that we experience them. And they, and we, are always lacking, incomplete, full of desires and inconsistencies. Binet has inserted himself into that apprehension and called it fiction; at its best moments, his technique is simple, clever, and unsettling.
HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, is available here.