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[HHhH] [by: Laurent Binet] (Anglais) Broché – 1 mars 2013
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Extremely well written, highly inventive, and gripping, this story of two men, a Czech and a Slav, who had early in Germany's rampage escaped northward to the Baltic and then by boat arrived in France, where they were assigned to the Foreign Legion's Czech battalions to fight Germany alongside the French. But given the fact that they were native speakers of the Czech language and capable fighters, the Czech government in exile in London scooped them up and assigned them to jump into Prague with the aim of assassinating Heydrich. How difficult that was, how they accomplished it, and how it turned out for them personally comprises this novel.
The author might be sitting opposite you, telling you the story, bringing it to life, but from time to time he leans in and gives you *his take on what's going on, how much he wishes he were with them, knowing them, taking the same risks, contemptuous of the German terror being visited on their land. Sometimes he shares his dreams that he's actually done or is doing exactly that, but then he shakes his head, pauses and goes back to telling the story in straight, unrelenting narrative.
Translated from the original French by a first-time translator; excellent work, very smooth, practically vernacular ... I noticed only a single error and that a minor quibble on my part. Both the author and translator deserve heartiest congratulations.
HHhH (which comes from the German meaning Himmler's brain is Heydrich) is not your average historical fiction. It does require the reader to accept Binet as his guide through the story and, with it, to take whatever diversions Binet wishes you to take. However, historical fiction, at its best, is a story and a story requires a strong voice to tell it. Binet, in this excellent translation, is a voice worth listening to and HHhH is a story that needs to be told. Sit back, strap yourself in, and be prepared for an excellent journey.
Most readers of this review are probably familiar with SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, born in Halle, Germany, of a musical family, who joined the Nazi party in 1931. A fast-riser within the SS, he served under Heinrich Himmler, and was complicit in almost every event within the party in the 1930's. From the "Night of the Long Knives", to helping to set up "Kristalnacht", to convening the Wannsee Conference in January, 1942, Heydrich found fame - and death - as the "temporary" Reich-protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Sent to Prague to rule as Hitler's minister, he was assassinated after serving there for a year or so. But, he was on the fast-track upwards and history has him as moving on to rule German-occupied France when he was done in Prague.
Binet's "novel" begins with an author (himself?) writing a book on the assassination. He writes about his own background, and about his writing processes. At the same time, he's recounting the story of Heydrich and of the "parachutists" sent into Prague in 1941 to kill Heydrich. "Operation Anthropoid" the plot was called. Begun in London under the auspices of the Czech government-in-exile and British Intelligence. Nine refugees - Czech, Moravian, and Slovakian - were trained in England and then parachuted into the Protectorate to carry out clandestine missions, one of which was to assassinate Heydrich.
The result of author Binet writing a "novel" about Heydrich, the plotters, and a writer who happens to be writing a "novel" about Heydrich, the plotters, etc is a somewhat disingenuous work of writing. I found myself getting impatient with Binet inserting himself (or someone like him) into the story he was writing. I wanted to know more about the plotters, the victim, the times, etc. I suppose I was reading more for history than character development. But Binet's book is actually quite good and I enjoyed reading it. I just couldn't TOTALLY reconcile myself with the self-involvement of the author. I'll be interested to read what other reviewers write about "HHhH". I can recommend it if the reader knows he's getting history with a bit of the author on the side.
The narrator/writer claims "The people who took part in this story are not characters. And if they became characters because of me, I don't wish to treat them like that (p. 320)." But he has made them characters; there is in this type of work, no way to avoid it; they are more real as characters in a novel than as stories in a history book. That, of course, is the conscious irony of the work: as characters they have substance. As historical figures "Worn-out by my muddled efforts to salute these people, I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity" (p. 323), they are shadows. I'm not sure that he has achieved the memorial he sought. The history is good; the fiction is good. The narrator/writer protests too much; he's correct in calling his efforts "muddled. Despite the muddling, it's worth reading as fictive history.
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.