• Laurent Binet
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 327 pp.

This stunning and complex debut novel, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt, centers on the real-life plot to assassinate the “Butcher of Prague.”

Reviewed by Rhoda Trooboff

Seventy years ago, on June 18, 1942, 800 SS stormtroopers took eight hours to kill seven Czech and Slovak freedom fighters sheltered in a cathedral in the heart of Prague. Thus ended Operation Anthropoid, the plot to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed “the Butcher of Prague” and “the Blond Beast,” Protector of the Reich of Bohemia and Moravia, chief of the Einsatzgruppen (the Nazi secret services and its paramilitary death squads) and author of the Final Solution.

French writer Laurent Binet has crafted his breathtaking debut novel, HHhH, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and Prix des Lecteurs du Livres de Poche, around the personalities and events of Operation Anthropoid, whose acronym in German was “HHhH,” Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich [Himmler’s brain is named Heydrich]. Enormously popular in France, HHhH has now been deftly translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

Operation Anthropoid has already been well documented in historical fiction and nonfiction, film, documentaries and cultural-site commemorations, many of which Binet cites within his novel. On May 18, 1942, Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, two parachutists trained in London by the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, blew up Heydrich’s Mercedes en route to Prague’s Gestapo headquarters. Heydrich ― Himmler’s deputy and close associate of Göring, Eichmann, Goebbels, Bormann, and Hitler ― died two days later of his injuries before he could assume his next likely post, Protector of the Reich of France. After eulogizing Heydrich at a state funeral in Berlin, Hitler instigated Nazi forces, the Czechoslovak puppet regime and ethnic German residents of Czechoslovakia, to conduct ruthless reprisals against Czech and Slovak towns like Lidice, which soon epitomized ― like Babi Yar and Auschwitz ― the scale of atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich.

Most authors of historical narratives attempt ― or pretend ― to portray events and personalities as if the teller of the tale were invisible or nonexistent. Authorial bias and the material’s effect on the author are usually omitted, left instead to the author’s private thoughts, to conversations with confidants, or to inferences made by the alert reader. Not so with HHhH. Indeed, what distinguishes Binet’s version of the oft-told true story of Operation Anthropoid is its insistent recounting of the research and writing processes and their emotional toll on the author. Binet’s narrator is passionately involved with his story’s characters, setting, themes and plot. Moreover, he makes his reader share his profound anxiety about the messy, contradictory nature of primary and secondary source material, historiography, historical fiction and writing in general.

A gripping, panoramic historical thriller, HHhH is also a critique of the concept of historical truth and a meditation on the novel as a literary form. HHhH opens with Osip Mandelstam’s 1922 observation from “The End of the Novel”: “Once again the writer stains the tree of History with his thoughts.” Much later HHhH’s narrator calls this work an “infranovel.” In virtually every short chapter the reader is made aware that crafted narratives ― even ones as meticulous as HHhH ― can never be truly truthful, whether they are labeled fiction or nonfiction. Indeed, the gathering, selecting, ordering and reporting of details ― let alone the summarizing, imagining, interpreting, judging, trusting and doubting of those details ― falsify the very notion of writing the truth about history.

Complex historical events demand complex treatment. Binet has chosen to further complicate his narrative by calling into doubt the very nature of his craft. One possible explanation for his decision to complicate the narrative with authorial angst is the imbalance in the print record between the two groups of major characters, so much more written about the Nazis than the resistance fighters. Another is that the print record rarely reveals the workings of the human mind. On the one hand, much evidence documents Heydrich’s repugnant, sadistic activities on behalf of the Third Reich, but little is known of his mental processes or motivations. Only the imagination can reveal them. On the other hand, little is recorded of the activities or inner life of the team of resistance fighters who brought down “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.” Binet must therefore convey their actions and personalities through fictional techniques (which he decries), use speculative circumlocutions, refer to other accounts of resistance movements, explore his own sympathies and antipathies, and place himself (or his self-like narrator) near the center of the narrative.

Like Conrad’s Lord Jim and Heller’s Catch-22, HHhH makes the reader work hard to follow multiple overlapping narrative arcs, their gradual folding and refolding upon each other, and the narrator’s occasional revisions and corrections of truth assertions. The effort needed to read this novel is enormous and definitely worthwhile, although some readers might appreciate a glossary of German World War II-era terms and acronyms, a dramatis personae list, maps and a chronology to help sort out the characters, locales and time periods.

Undoubtedly Binet’s sympathies lie entirely with the resistance fighters. Nevertheless, he shortchanges them. Like Milton, who portrays Satan in Paradise Lost more vividly than anyone else, Binet is drawn to Heydrich like a moth to a flame. Like Conrad’s Marlow in Heart of Darkness, Binet demonstrates “fascination with the abomination.”

Nevertheless, honoring the memory of the martyrs ― both the heroic actors and the slain innocents ― is Binet’s stated goal in HHhH. He urges his readers not to devalue real people as mere literary characters and regrets that villains get more pages than “those hundreds, thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity.” By the novel’s end the writer “trembles with guilt” for having made terrible commissions and omissions in order to write this extraordinary book.

Born in 1972, Laurent Binet studied in Paris where he taught at secondary and university levels and has been a singer and songwriter. His La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., published in 2004, recounts those experiences. In a feature essay in Paris-Match, journalist Valérie Trierweiler hailed HHhH, calling Binet “le beau gosse” and “philosophe surcroît” [cute guy and philosopher besides]. She also reported that following the Goncourt prize announcement,k Binet received a call from France’s then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, who gushed, “J’ai adoré votre livre, j’aimerais qu’on en parle à l’occasion d’un déjeuner.” [I loved your book. Let’s do lunch.] Treirweiler noted that Binet has “never hidden his leftist sentiments.” Binet was then tapped by Mme. Trierweiler’s life-partner, now-President François Hollande, to document his election campaign. Binet’s current project is an account of Hollande’s victory. While the compelling gravitas of HHhH is at the moment missing from contemporary French politics, this reader certainly looks forward to Binet’s reportage.

Rhoda Trooboff, a longtime literature and writing teacher at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., is a publisher of children’s books at Tenley Circle Press Ltd.

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