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The most important step to enjoying "HHhH," the fantastic debut novel by Laurent Binet, is the same as the most important step for enjoying a plane ride, a scuba dive, or a bondage S&M session: you must trust your partner. "HHhH" is the story of Laurent Binet trying to tell a story of two World War II assassins on a mission to kill a devious Nazi. It's the story of the rise of that devious Nazi (Reinhard Heydrich), the fall of Czechoslovakia, and the birth of the Final Solution. It's a trip through Binet's mind, with all the back alleyways of an old Prague neighborhood and enough asides to tire a reluctant Dutch prince. At once a treatise on historical fiction, a postmodern meditation on the role of an author, and a gripping suspense yarn with one of the simplest of plots (two guys try to kill another dude), "HHhH" is a book you need to pick up and read, like, right now.
In the first few pages Binet admits he doesn't want to condemn our brave assassins to the world of the "vulgar character." But what, Binet asks, is he supposed to do? Should he "...drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least to give it some substance." Throughout the story, Binet grapples with how to best tell this story. Truth be told, I have always been turned off by the hijinks and trickery of meta-fiction. The sort of safety net it provides - I'm playing a joke on the reader but if it doesn't work, perhaps that's part of the joke - is what irritates me, but the fact that Binet comes out and says that he is not embracing meta fiction as much as he is beaten down by it, that this story is as much his as it is his characters - that type of sincerity is rare and invigorating. Yes, Binet will interject himself into the story. In the end, this is a story of a man trying to figure out how to tell a fantastic story without obscuring it with the haze of fiction. You have to trust his vision and just enjoy the ride.
The story begins with the author's first awareness of the plot, charts the rise of Reinhard Heydrich to the top of the insidious SS, and maps out the evolution of the Final Solution - and how much of the Nazis' most monstrous plots seemed to have Heydrich at the center of them. In the beginning, Binet will show his research and erudition, documenting everything known about the beginnings of Heydrich and our two assassins. He will recount anecdotes, discuss the training of the assassins, and where each of the players were at different turns of WWII history. At turns hilarious, informative, and gripping, "HHhH" was really tough for me to put down. One highlight from the author's research for me was a previously unknown story regarding Heydrich's hobby as Luftwaffe pilot, and another with the Ukranian national soccer team.
Some of the criticisms of "HHhH" state that Binet masquerades as a non-fiction book that will from time to time slide back into fictional creation - inventing a scene at Auschwitz, discussing Himmler's reaction to a certain event that he has no historical basis for (then, in a fit of postmodernism, wavers on whether to include said reaction), or how Heydrich feels about Albert Speer - but I believe these criticisms are off base. This is a story of Binet deciding how to tell a story, and though he does invent occasionally throughout the pages it is not a deal breaker for me. However, I was slightly surprised that in parts of this book Binet seems to lambast Jonathan Littell, author of "The Kindly Ones." Binet does not love TKO like I did (as unpublished parts of the manuscript which appeared on The Millions certainly prove), and doesn't believe in the fictional creation of characters in a historical setting. That's what Binet can't handle - he knows that Littell has invented some, and thus he doesn't know what to believe and what not to believe. This has struck some readers as hypocritical, as Binet has done the same thing on a smaller scale - he is still a novelist after all, not a documentarian. Binet says that "creating characters to understand historical fact is like fabricating evidence." Of course, this is where Binet is off base, as Littell is not only trying to understand historical fact but also tell a story of Greek justice, the guilt of a murderous state, and the voice of genocidal perpetrator.
But I am getting off track. As I have said throughout, Binet has written a masterful novel. He has attempted to tell the story of real people, real fighters, real monsters, real murder, real massacres, and to do that he turned them into fiction. "Unfair," Binet writes, "but there you go." And in converting them to fiction, he produced an amazing addition for any literary bookshelf.