by Laurent Binet; translated by Sam Taylor
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; 336 p.
I thought I knew all the main villains of of the Nazi regime. “They haunted my dreams for too long to admit, but at least I would do well on my social studies exam,” I rationalized as a child. Goebbels: the diminutive, club footed, Minister of Propaganda; Himmler: head of the S.S.; Goring: nominated successor to Hitler and Commander of the daunting German Air force; Eichmann: the eerily calm, bespectacled Head of the RHSA, put to trial at Nuremberg; Mengele: The ironically named “Angel of death,” who served as the notorious physician at Auschwitz-Birkenau sentencing people to life or death with a simple flick of his thumb; and of course, the ultimate evil, Hitler: the bane of my nightmares. Healthy, I know. Yet, according to Laurent Binet’s intelligent and thrilling, recently translated book HHhH, I neglected to obsess over one of the most frightening and powerful officers in the Reich, Reinhard Heydrich, a talented violinist, master fencer, and the architect behind the notorious Final Solution. (He was dubbed by none other than Hitler as, “The man with the iron heart,” as a compliment and as “The Hangman” or “The Butcher,” by the masses he slaughtered.) Binet, a professor of history in France, won the Prix Goncourt du premier roman 2010, for this, his first novel.
The title, an acronym, stands for the German phrase Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (“Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich”), which, reportedly, describes how though Heydrich, technically, occupied a lower position than Himmler, he represented the true power of the S.S. The book focuses on Operation Anthropoid, an mission run by Czech partisan fighters Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis in collaboration with the British to assassinate Heydrich. To describe the story any further would rob any future readers of the all encompassing excitement of this, actual, stranger than fiction story. While this might sound like an sensationalistic movie plot (Valkyrie comes to mind), it is nothing short of a historical masterpiece that manages to thrill at the same time that it raises the essential questions of historiography and its implications for the present.
I find good historical fiction, ironically, as one of the more magical mediums of literature. Historical fiction must forever look over its shoulder at the imposing shadow of Truth. Yet, Binet never backs down from the challenge; in fact he invites it. To that effect, in a swift two pages at the beginning of the book, Binet gives away all the important details, confident in the power of the story itself, precluding the need to rely on any cheap parlor tricks of suspense. Consequently, I assumed that the book would present an interesting, emotionally insightful exploration of events to which I knew the outcome, but magically, the book still reads as perhaps one of the best thrillers in literature I’ve ever read. I cried, many times; I gasped out loud, my heart held its breath, and I needed to put it down for the anxiety it engendered, but couldn’t, because of my desire to continue the story. One top of his other considerable talents, Binet’s masterful ability as a raconteur grounds the story in a fast paced action — full of espionage, betrayal, true heroism, fate, and destiny — that never panders to our desire for simplicity.
However referring to this book as historical fiction does an immense injustice to such a brilliant, novel effort, one that blurs the line between countless genres: historical fiction, thriller, biography, psychological, philosophical and moral drama, and memoir. Binet achieves this wizardry in a manner all his own. Much of the power comes from the persona that Binet creates for the reader. In a slightly post-modern manner, Binet not only tells the historical story with powerful emotional interiority to characters he did not know but came to love and despise, but also tells the story of his research, of the writing of this grueling project. However, unlike the negative connotation of the post-modern self-awareness of a text in creation, Binet never deigns to stand above his material as an all-powerful creator. In fact, Binet endears himself to us because he presents himself in such an opposite, humble manner. In doing so, Binet not only wins our trust, but heightens and complicates each juicy detail of the story, a story which he inhabits with the obsession engendered by love. One aside in particular, somewhat of a recurring theme endeared this reader to Binet in a way that I thought, “I would listen to this man speak about any and all history.” Binet muses as the time approaches in which he must write the climax of the story:
I feel metal rubbing against leather. And that anxiety rising inside the three men, and the calmness they display. This is not the manly self-confidence of those who know they are going to die. Even though our heroes are prepared for death, the possibility of escaping alive has never been dismissed. And this makes their psychological tension even more unbearable. I don’t know what incredible power over their nerves they must possess in order to remain in control. I make a quick inventory of all the times in my life when I’ve had to show sangfroid. What a joke! On each occasion, the stakes were tiny: a broken leg, a night at work, a rejection. There you go, that’s pretty much all I’ve ever risked in the course of my pathetic existence. How could I convey even the tiniest idea of what those three men lived through?
In a sense, it feels like taking a passive part in creating a movie with a talented director, one full of insight, passion, and intelligence. Binet evinces a rare knack for understanding the expectations of the reader as he asks the questions, and muses on the topics any dedicated reader would ponder. How can we relate to the heroism of those willing to sacrifice their lives to kill a monster when the closest we come to heroism is in the mundane struggles of modern life?
Because of the memoir aspects of the novel, Binet can infect us with his passion to plumb to the depths of the character, whether that be the complex heroes Gabcik and Kubis, or the oddly civil, well-mannered, calculated monster Reinhard. Binet, time and again writes about his abiding befuddlement at the “science” of history, his ambivalence and uncertainties towards taking fact and snippets of personal impressions as he turns them into fully fleshed out terrifying, heroic, and bumbling characters. In this vein, Binet begins his story with an apology, but a beautiful apology. Binet’s devotion to the story, to perhaps the greatest individual act of partisan resistance during WWII, his worry that he knows, inevitably, he will betray some details in his historical tribute to unknown heroes leads him to a prayer of sorts:
I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? I don’t want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.
The more Binet lets us into the laboratory of his creation, the more we connect with the drama of the story. At the climax of the story, with the fruition of the assassination attempt, I never felt more attached and riveted to a book, partially because Binet sets it up with such a humane understanding of the characters and the social and historical context, but even more because Binet himself displays excitement as he walks the contemporary streets of Prague which staged the fateful assassination attempt. Binet inhabits his characters with the meticulousness of the most devoted method actors.
Even with all of this said, I hesitated to call this book great, because I already engorged, to nausea, on Holocaust literature. In fact, this past year, we’ve witnessed a curious influx of Holocaust literature — think of Auslander, Ullman, Englander, Spiegelman, and Ausubel to name but a few in the past few months — a trend that demands explanation. But HHhH does not fall into the category of Holocaust literature, whether of the first or second generation of survivors. In a crude manner of helpful categorization, we can refer to Holocaust literature as first and foremost Jewish-centered and obsessed with the burdens and promises of memory, and second, stories that describe and tackle the moral and philosophical questions raised by the Holocaust for the Jewish identity.
Refreshingly, Binet uses the Holocaust and WWII as a backdrop to focus on individual characters: the partisans Gabcik and Kubis, and ultimately the sanely evil Heydrich and his complicit wife. He stays away from questions of theology, philosophy, and feels more curiosity towards more immanent questions of courage, heroism, and to use the cryptic phrase of Arendt, the banality of evil. However, it is through the exploration of these compelling characters that Binet finds an original path to illuminate the universal historical context of WWII, something that parochial Holocaust literature often fails to accomplish.
I really don’t know how to praise this book further than to say that it changed my conception of the possibilities of literature. I cannot recommend this book more highly than saying, despite the cliche, that it is an actual must-read, both for its important content, but as importantly, for its avant garde nature as it pushes forward the boundaries of historical fiction. (From a different lens, it represents the avant garde of teaching history. I can’t imagine anyone who would read this book and consequently not feel interested in the essential questions of historiography i.e. what can we truly know about history.) Go out, find this book, devour it, and prepare to find yourself changed, in ways you could not expect.