Review: HHhH by Laurent Binet

Book cover of HHhH by Laurent Binet, reinhard heydrich

From now on, for a good length of time, you’re pretty much only going to get reviews of books I was given for my birthday or that I purchased afterwards. We’re decorating my bedroom at the moment and my wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves have been covered with dustsheets so I can’t get to any of my books, except the ones obtained post-dustsheet that are stacked downstairs. HHhH was a present from Charlotte and the first book I picked up from the pile in the living room. It’s amazing – go read it.

Summary:Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is
Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists
sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich –
chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond
beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’.

His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells HHhH.

All the characters in HHhH
are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the
nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you
are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the
temptation to make things up?

It took me a while to work out what this book actually is, and I’m still not entirely sure now. It’s filed under ‘fiction’ in Waterstones, but it’s also partly autobiographical as the author explains his interest in WWII Czechoslovakia and how his investigation procedeeded, alongside actually explaining its history to you. It’s never really made clear what the book is meant to be and it’s slightly bewildering.

It works though, when you get used to it. It’s uses a stream of consciousness style as he explains how and why he’s writing as he goes along.

I’ve decided not to overstylize my story. That suits me fine because, even if for later episodes I’ll have to resist the temptation to flaunt my knowledge by writing too many details for this or that scene that I’ve researched too much, I must admit that in this case – regarding Heydrich’s birthplace – my knowledge is a bit sketchy. There are two towns in Germany called Halle, and I don’t even know which one I’m talking about. For the time being, I think it’s not important. We’ll see.

It’s almost as though Laurent Binet wrote the book without going back to edit. For example, he’ll state that he doesn’t know a certain fact (like in the quote above), but a few chapters later he’ll pop up and go “Oh, I’ve checked it now – it’s this…!” At one point he refuses to buy a certain reference book about Reinhard Heydrich but then ends up buying it a little later.

This makes it a little hard to follow – just look at the arrows in my review notebook as I was trying desperately to keep track of everything. It discusses the Wannsee Conference at one point and then goes back to discuss it forty chapters later, after Mr Binet had read something about it in a different book!

I actually really like this style, which surprised me. It’s chatty and informal, but there’s some wonderful prose in and amongst. It’s also an interesting look about what it’s like to research and write a non-fiction book – such as suddenly hearing Heydrich mentioned everywhere when he’d never noticed before or occasional comments his girlfriend made whilst he was writing.

After a while, it does settle down and the chapters start to alternate – one chapter of narrated fact (told like historical fiction but with no inventions, not even dialogue) and then one chapter of discussion. It stops being quite so jumpy but also makes it even harder to pick a genre for HHhH.

When a writer tries to bring a conversation back to life in this way, the result is often contrived and the effect the opposite of that desired: you see too clearly the strings controlling the puppets, you hear too distinctly the author’s voice in the mouths of these historical figures.

What I liked most about HHhH is that it’s a non-fiction book, but told by a person rather than a historian. It really helps you to understand the atrocities committed because you’re not being lectured on it by an expert who’s taught 57,000 other people and has become inured to it – instead, Laurent Binet is as shocked about it as you are. What really got me was the emphasis on the little people – the normal, non-military people who risked torture and death for even the smallest chance of aiding the rebellion.

I examine a map of Prague, marking the locations of the families who helped and sheltered the parachutists. Almost all of them paid with their lives – men, women and children. The Svatoš family, a few feet from the Charles Bridge; the Ogoun family, near the castle; the Novak, Moravec, Zelenka, and Fafek families, all farther east. Each member of each of these families would deserve his or her own book – an account of their involvement with the Resistance until the tragic denouement of Mauthausen. How many forgotten heroes sleep in history’s great cemetery?

The ending of the book nearly made me sick with grief, shame and admiration. When you know that these people really existed and accepted their fate in order to do what was right, you look at yourself and just find yourself… lacking. We all know what the Nazis did but I think we’ve become so accustomed to it that we just don’t take it seriously anymore. This book brings it home all over again.

I learned a lot from HHhH (admittedly mostly via Wikipedia as it does demand a certain amount of prior knowledge) but I never felt bored or patronised. This is a unique masterpiece, combining the reliability of non-fiction with the atmosphere of fiction, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

This book was:
Read A Lit Addicted Brit’s review of HHhH here.

Comments

  1. Ellie says:

    *adds book wearily to her list for the next blowout* Oh dear. I knew I'd have to buy it if you AND Charlotte told me to. It sounds amazing though, and I actually really like the idea of kind of bumbling along with the author, being privy to that research process, instead of getting a polished, finished and sometimes quite dry end result. Another review hits the mark, thank you Hanna! 😀

  2. Laura says:

    I am kind of second-handly stressed out by the jumping around and the MADNESS, but at the same time this definitely sounds like something I would like. Like, sometimes I almost want to know more about the process of someone writing something, than about the actual thing they're writing about, if that makes sense? Or it's at least something I'm interested in. *definitely doesn't buy this, never ever ever*

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