HHhH by Laurent Binet

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HHhH by Laurent Binet

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A history book, coloured as a novel, or a brilliant biography? You decide. What's beyond question is how compelling this story and the author's approach can be.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Harvill Secker
ISBN: 9781846554797

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Shortlisted for Waterstones Book of the Year 2012

First, the title. HHhH is short for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich - Himmler's brain was called Heydrich. In other words, it's not a case of 'behind every great Nazi there's a greater woman', but behind Hitler's own deputy was a major strength to the party. Reinhard Heydrich was the ruler of what practically corresponds to the Czech Republic, led the SS and more, and bossed the workings of the Final Solution. Any good biography of this compelling character in those interesting times - given too the subplot of those who would assassinate him - is bound to be an excellent history book. But, despite this getting a high rating, this isn't one. Why not? The author says so.

In a stylistic quirk that will nag some, but I actually found very enjoyable, Binet has made sure this is not a history book, and makes a case for this being a novel. For one, he sticks to the present tense, and at times uses all of first, second and third person narratives at least once. And he has also inserted himself into proceedings. So we start with his interest in the story and why he felt the need to write it, and continue with some of his research. At later points he has to check up on his notes - what colour was the car Heydrich was in when shot at?!

He also drops in on other books and films portraying a similar story, and tells us what's right and wrong about them and their methods; he gives us teasing little tastes of what's to come, like a thriller writer, yet unlike a thriller writer tells us what he is doing. He looks back at paragraphs he has written and critiques them, or suggests he might cut them.

All this post-modernism points out most clearly how subjective history is - it's all in the hands of the author, and this one has a specific approach to the story, a certain attitude to the heroes who were parachuted into the Czech countryside with murder as their duty and little chance of escaping afterwards. But with the gamut of research he is proud to point out he has at his grasp, Binet also provides us with some very compelling bits of history, from the major story probably most people know, right down to the more trivial-seeming, yet equally horrific, details. One night some five hundred Hamburgers were arrested by the authorities, just for having a swing music party - which was both too Negro, and evidence of dangerous Anglophile trends.

What I can't pin down is quite how the format of the book works. The people who took part in this story were not characters, he writes. Binet doesn't want to produce literature - his intent is to be a sincere memorialist for the Czech and the Slovak who went to kill Heydrich. To that extent he makes sure we know any dialogue he includes is fantasy - except when he's copying others' testimony from first-hand evidence. He's a little too noisy when he drops into diary format, and it's the diary of him writing the words we read and not the timeline of his plot, but I really liked his interjections.

Not being able to pin the approach down successfully, though, means I too am unsure what to call the book. Author and publisher insist it's a novel - yet there is just too much veracity in these pages, and too much truthful documentation has gone into it for it to be fiction. It could be just plain faction, yet that isn't normally so stylised into such a self-awareness. What is not up for debate is how excellent the book is. With the picture sweeping from the intimate data to the huge picture, Binet knows what he is doing. (He points out how awkward it is that four of the (non-)characters have the same name, for one, but gets us over that hurdle easily.) The little, bitty chapters he uses (over 250 in 350 pages) allows him to cover a lot of ground in a very quick, efficient and educational way - but as is the intent, this doesn't have the heart of a history book. It has, and is, more. Whatever it precisely is, it's quite splendid.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The straight telling of those who wanted to kill Heydrich's top boss is in Killing Hitler by Roger Moorhouse.

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Buy HHhH by Laurent Binet at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy HHhH by Laurent Binet at Amazon.com.


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Alison Layland said:

Dear Bookbag,

Thanks for the review of HHhH by John Lloyd, a book I have been considering reading and whch your review makes me want to read even more.

However nowhere in the review did it mention the translator, Sam Taylor - who, to judge from the reviewer's comments, has obviously done an excellent job. I believe we should see more literature in translation, and see literary translators getting the credit they deserve, so some mention in the review of Sam Taylor's work would have been welcome.

Kind regards, Alison