Laurent Binet’s HHhH follows Operation Anthropoid, the Allied plot to assassinate SS-Obergrüppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich by Slovak warrant officer Jozef Gabčík and Czech staff sergeant Jan Kubiš. The assassination succeeded, if not exactly as planned, though both Gabčík and Kubiš were killed as a result and an entire nearby village, Lidice, was pillaged and razed by Nazi forces in retaliation. (If this reaction seems extreme, even by Nazi standards, readers should bear in mind that Heydrich was among the architects of “The Final Solution” and a man whose bloodlust was so renowned that his fellow Nazis allegedly often said of him that “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”—Heinrich Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich—hence the story’s acronymic title.)
Given the previous paragraph (along with the historical record) sums up much of the story’s plot, including its ending, we find ourselves facing the same question that all historical story-tellers do: How does a writer present a compelling story that the audience already knows? Binet’s response seems to be by supplying his own viewpoint into history, and in so doing, he sometimes finds it impossible to keep out of the story himself.
Take, for example, the excruciating pause that occurs when Gabčík and Kubiš have bombed Heydrich’s car, thus inflicting what will soon become his mortal wounds. We learn here that not only are the German soldiers nearby “transfixed by Gabčík’s appearance,” but also that Binet, “too, [is] transfixed—because [he is] reading Europe Central by William T. Vollman, which has just appeared in French.”
In another brief chapter (almost all of the chapters in HHhH are brief, as if scribbled down as thoughts flashed through Binet’s frenetic, fact-addled mind), we learn that an article appeared in the French news daily Libération in 2006 describing a Czech website that included a game in which users try to “burn Lidice in the shortest possible time,” the goal of which was “to get young Chechs interested in the history of the village of Lidice.” The point of this odd tidbit, presented without comment, seems to be to reinforce much of the book’s philosophical position that via the lens of history, everything changes. We can learn as much about the events of the past as their records allow, and yet nonetheless we can only see those events through our own, present-day eyes. If our eyes are best accustomed to a video game reality, then our stories may well take such form.
The quantity of research required to write a book like HHhH is astonishing, and in places, it seems almost to have driven Binet to madness. He fusses over the color of his character’s automobiles, over exactly they said in certain situations, and often he admits that he can’t possibly know just how much of what he’s telling us is the absolute truth. His pursuit of historical accuracy is relentless, and yet it is at odds with his imagination, which is similarly unremitting. It’s a struggle familiar to any writer trying to present a world both believable and powerfully imagined, though perhaps it’s especially difficult for this breed of writer, the one writing a historical novel.
And here, I notice as I write this, is the first time I’ve referred to HHhH as a novel, probably because I’m not quite sure that that’s what it is, despite what the English language cover suggests. If it is a novel, then on which character(s) are we really supposed to focus? Is this really about Operation Anthropoid? Or Gabčík and Kubiš? Or is it about Laurent Binet? Or us? I don’t really know, and
yet perhaps because I don’t, HHhH is among the more powerful commentaries on the state of both fiction and non-fiction that I’ve ever read.
The cover of the English language edition of HHhH features the four letters themselves, blocked and white, against a red background with a pair of silhouetted parachutists dropping past them from above. Fair enough, given the book’s plot, but the original French cover seems more appropriate. In it, we see an official photo of Reinhard Heydrich, except that in this photo, his face is blurred out, as if erased from a pencil sketch. That blank space is left for us to fill in, just as all blank spaces do, and HHhH reminds us that history, and with it the world, is full of them.
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