Author: Laurent Binet
Binet, Laurent (2012). HHhH. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Date Posted: April 14, 2013
This is one of the books picked by the readers and editors of Newsweek as their favorite books of 2012. It is the story of the successful Czech plot to assassinate Heydrich, but told in, if such is possible, an almost humorous way.
HHhH: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”. The most dangerous man in Hitler’s cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the “Butcher of Prague.” He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of history.
Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church.
A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet’s remarkable imagination, HHhH—an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history.
Every now and then a piece of work comes along that undermines the assumptions upon which all previous works have been built. Often impish and self-referential, and always as eager to show their workings as any top set maths student, these pieces of art complicate the genre for everyone that follows. HHhH does it for the historical novel. Laurent Binet’s brilliantly translated debut deconstructs the process of fiction writing in the face of the brute reality of facts.
His subject, the daring assassination mission undertaken by two Czechoslovakian parachutists in 1942, Operation Anthropoid. Its target is Reinhard Heydrich, “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”, according to Adolf Hitler. Heydrich is officially Himmler’s number two in the SS, but everyone in the organization believes “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich.” Tall, blond, clever and cartoonishly cruel, Heydrich is a perfect prism through which to reveal and condemn the banality of evil.
HHhH recounts both the mission undertaken by Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis as they travel from France to Britain and then on to Prague and their fateful encounter with Heydrich, and also the mission undertaken by Binet as he tries to put together an accurate account of two men whom he admires so much but about whom he knows so little. This doesn’t stop him being scrupulous about facts: he is forever scolding himself for perceived flights of fancy. His aim is to produce what he calls an “infranovel”, one that is constantly examining its own particular claim to truth.
If this sounds pompous, the book certainly isn’t: it achieves a playful lightness with its comic updates on the state of Binet’s relationship and its bruising analysis of other accounts of the period. And it is conventionally successful too, as both a gripping thriller and a moving testament to the heroes of the Czechoslovakian resistance. Their mission reset the path of history. Binet’s resets the path of the historical novel. He has a bright, bright future.
HHhH is one of The New York Times’ Notable Books of 2012.