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HHhH : roman by Laurent Binet

HHhH : roman (edition 2009)

by Laurent Binet

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1,243906,384 (3.9)115
Title:HHhH : roman
Authors:Laurent Binet
Info:Paris : Bernard Grasset, c2009.
Collections:Your library

Work details

HHhH by Laurent Binet

  1. 81
    The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (yokai)
  2. 10
    Resistance by Gerald Brennan (atbradley)
  3. 10
    Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich by Robert Gerwarth (meggyweg)
  4. 21
    Mendelssohn is on the Roof by Jiří Weil (gust)
  5. 10
    Jan Karski by Yannick Haenel (yokai)
  6. 00
    Fatherland by Robert Harris (karatelpek)
    karatelpek: Alternative History-HHhH is a key supporting character in Harris' dystopian future.
  7. 00
    Walhalla-Code: Kriminalroman by Uwe Klausner (passion4reading)
    passion4reading: A work of historical crime fiction, this nevertheless has Heydrich's assassination at its heart and deals with some of the fallout, both factual and fictitious.
  8. 11
    The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (gust)
    gust: Ook hier verzetsleden die een dictator doden.

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It’s difficult to categorise this book. In some ways it’s a straight historical account of Heydrich, chief of the Nazi secret services with the author saying that he is so concerned about historical accuracy that he will distinguish between verifiable verbatim conversation and ones he can closely reconstruct, saying of artificially recreated dialogue: ‘the result is often contrived and the effect the opposite of that desired: you see too clearly the strings controlling the puppets, you hear too distinctly the author’s voice in the mouths of these historical figures’. Looking back, there was quite a lot of dubious dialogue but Binet is continuously drawing our attention to his lack of reliability.

In referring to what Binet says here, the other aspect of this book is seen – it’s a narrative about how he went about writing about Heydrich – and this is the part that seems to be the more fanciful, a part where he talks of the beauty of his girlfriends and states one thing only to contradict it later, such as saying Heydrich gave himself the alias ‘H’, just as the head of Britain’s intelligence service had the letter ‘M’ “(yes, like in James Bond)” but then a few pages later Binet confesses ‘I’ve been talking rubbish’ and says both men called themselves ‘C’. All this is quite deliberately playful since obviously if he had wanted to, Binet could have simply written the correct version for publication in the first place. Initially I was not sure how I felt about the prominence he gave to his research. On the one hand, I felt he made some valid points, like the one about dialogue, but I also felt he quite often gave too much prominence and space to how he was collecting and using his research.

And looking back on the book, I did feel that this was a rather egocentric narrative, one where Binet made himself central and his whimsical comments about himself jarred with the grim story of the parachutists. I’ve read that he disdains most contemporary French writers for producing prose like Balzac’s and for not being innovative enough but I found he used some of the more tired techniques of lazy novelists like foreshadowing disaster which he does a few times such as when comparing Curda’s betrayal of the parachutists with the betrayal another man has made – ‘the betrayal of the other man will bear no comparison at all with that of Karel Curda’. Binet also slows down the climax of the book with a series of comparisons, designed I suppose to stretch out the drama – once again a rather dubious technique and not at all original. So his criticism of other writers’ treatments of this episode in history strikes me as being a bit much.

Binet is right that it is difficult to write about historical episodes. For myself I think the choice should be between writing as factual an account as possible – which could be rather dry but allow the reader to make whatever additions and interpretations he wants or to be treat it as Hilary Mantel does, clearly fictionalising history. The sort of middle ground Binet takes was as much about himself as the parachutists – and his story did not hold interest for me. ( )
  evening | Jan 9, 2017 |
'It's as if a Dr. Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature. Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.'

I was fascinated to read this book, having being a student of German history for several years. Sometimes a novel sits on your shelf and you're really not quite sure what it is going to be like when you open the cover and being to read. HHhH was such a book for me, because it tells a true story, contains real characters, and depicts actual historical events. Yet it is a novel. What will this reading experience be like, I wondered? The answer, for me, was fascinating, compelling and surprising.

HHhH tells the amazing true story of 'Operation Anthropoid', when two heroic parachutists, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, one Czech and one Slovak, left Britain for Prague, with the task of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, the then 'Protector of Bohemia and Moravia', senior figure in the Nazi party, and 'principal architect' of the Final Solution, creator of the terrible, murderous Einzatzgruppen, he is the 'Hangman of Prague, whom the Czechs also nicknamed the Butcher,' 'the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.'

The title, HHhH, stands for 'Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich' in German: in English, this is translated as Himmler's brain is called Heydrich, because 'in the devilish duo he forms with Himmler, he is thought to he the brains.' Binet builds the story slowly towards the main event, and along the way he finds evidence of Heydrich's dark deeds and involvement almost everywhere: 'it's incredible. Almost anywhere you look in the politics of the Third Reich, and particularly among its most terrifying aspects, Heydrich is there - at the center of everything.'

What makes this book even more interesting than being just an engrossing, present tense retelling of this thrilling episode in history, and of events leading up to it, is that the author speaks directly to the reader throughout. He breaks into the narrative and tells us where he has hesitated, where he thinks he might have made a mistake, or is unsure about an event; 'I've been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination.' And, at another point, he tells us; 'that scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up.' He has described this himself as the reader receiving the equivalent of 'the movie, and the making of the movie', all at once. This conversational tone, and the honesty, made me smile at times. He also discusses previous literature on this event, and films that have portrayed Heydrich.

This book made a real impact on me. It is fascinating from a historical perspective, in particular with regard to Czechoslovakia then, and there were many things I learned and people I now know about, like Beneš, and Colonel Moravec, the heroic Gabčík and Kubiš, and other heroes of the Czechoslovakian resistance like them. As Binet so eloquently writes, 'how many forgotten heroes sleep in history's great cemetery?' I didn't feel like I was reading a translation either. The style is an unusual construction, but for me it was highly effective and extremely engaging. It is a compelling, moving story. Brilliant. ( )
  LindsaysLibrary | Aug 19, 2016 |
"I am spreading myself too thinly. Everything I read takes me farther and farther away from the curve in Holešovice Street." (Chapter 215)

Is this a novel? It's hard to say. Ostensibly, it tells the story of the assassination of Nazi bigwig Reinhard Heydrich, who was ambushed whilst driving through the streets of Prague in May 1942 (he died of septicaemia caused by his wounds in early June). However, this is told in the naked voice of HHhH's author, Laurent Binet, and the story of Heydrich and his London-trained killers, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, is interspersed with Binet's musings and writing angst: how to write a certain scene, what historical titbits to add or leave out, how to merge the historical fact with imagined fictions, how to turn real historical figures into facsimile characters. Binet suggests in Chapter 205 (there are no page numbers) that HHhH is an "infranovel", a sort of non-fiction novel that not only breaks the fourth wall but goes back to examine the fragments of brick.

It may sound arty and pretentious and post-modern and so on but it is surprisingly readable, no doubt helped by the fact that many chapters are just a paragraph or even a sentence long. Whilst we should probably stick with classifying it as a 'novel' – the label with the broadest parameters – it seemed to me in large parts to be a sort of memoir, or a 'making-of' documentary in prose form. It is essentially a conversation with Binet as he recounts what he knows about Operation Anthropoid – the codename for the mission to kill Heydrich – and his process for learning all this. Binet's self-awareness means that the reader is constantly evaluating the story and how they are assimilating it; the reader feels a part of the story.

Despite its success in doing so, it is still an unusual approach for telling such an important story. Unsurprisingly, the best parts of HHhH – the title is the abbreviated form of the German phrase for 'Himmler's brain is called Heydrich' – are the actual historical parts. The actual assassination and the last stand of the Czechoslovakian resistance fighters in a church crypt – which Binet correctly likens to the Alamo (Chapter 250) – are intense and gripping, and the account of the reprisal massacre at Lidice is harrowing. I would have liked to see the author go more in this direction: regardless of how much I appreciated Binet's own musings, it is the story of Heydrich's death which readers want to read about. Yet the story is competing with the storyteller; Anthropoid is often fighting for air. It is telling that, for all his research and all the praise Binet lavishes on Kubiš and Gabčík, the final two sentences of the book are: "And me? I am also there, perhaps." The author queries as early as Chapter 11 why in historical fiction, the fictional prerogative always seems to win out over the historical, but by the end of HHhH, both the fictional and the historical have both lost out to the personal.

This is not a negative review. The book is stimulating, rewarding, well-researched and cleanly-written. It is also impossibly unique; any book about one of the architects of the Holocaust which can also work in an Asterix reference (Chapter 215) without it seeming out of place is clearly something out of the norm. It is always commendable for an artist to test the boundaries of art, and even more so when he is successful, as Binet is here. I maintain that a straight historical novel – or, better yet, an actual history book – could tell the story better, but HHhH is nevertheless something special. ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
January 2013: I listened to this audiobook in preparation for TMN's Rooster Literary Award Blood-sport.

March 2013: I listened to the audiobook again. HHhH lost in the first round of the Roosters.

June 2013: Three months later later, this book is still with me. The narrator’s voice in my head is still sometimes there. The titular aitches refer to a German phrase about Henrich Heydrich: Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich / Himmler’s brain [is] named Heydrich.

Heydrich was not only a Nazi of superlative sadism, he was the Butcher of Prague. The man credited with formulating the Final Solution at Wansee. Because he was assassinated before the end of the war, and thus wasn't part of the Nuremberg trials, he isn't as well known. Even Hitler, apparently, was afraid of Heydrich's dark brilliance.

Here’s what I really liked about HHhH: it blended fiction and non-fiction in a seemingly seamless way. Binet tells of his obsession with tracking down the story, the true story, of the men who assassinated Heydrich. But Binet's narrator, however honest and forthright he may be about the difference between the things he can truthfully call “facts” and those he can only right call “speculation,” he (the narrator) is also a kind of construct himself -- i.e., a fictional lie. Binet points this out. Binet also points out that the "honest narrator as fictional construct and therefore also constitutionally dishonest" double bind isn't news to anyone who's picked up a Lit Crit book in the last 30 years. Such "meta" exercises can often feel hypoallergenically sterile, but in Binet's capable hands the construct comes to beautiful (as opposed to Frankensteinian) life.

In some ways (other than, of course, evil ends), Binets literary construct echoes the Nazi's own (and brilliantly evil) propaganda construct. Which lends an admirable kind of historical authenticity to the book. The fictional construct posing as a non-fictional narrator, which is itself a kind of propaganda that the reader willingly participates in, also puts the reader in the same position as a 1930s/40s German citizen -- i.e., as an object of propagandizing. For this reader, I found that both discomforting and revelational. Revelational in the sense that I better understood how easily it would have been, as a 1930s/40s German citizen, to fail to see what was going on around me.

Anyway, HHhH. Listening to it a second time, about 3/4s of the way through, I remembered that I’d actually seen a movie about this exact story; i.e., about the story of Heydrich’s assassination. I think I was 9 or 10 years old. The movie was one of the most claustrophobic, terrifying things I’d ever seen. It forever after ruined Holocaust movies for me (i.e., ruined them as educational entertainment). I couldn’t rid my mind of the panicky feeling of being trapped in a crypt while Nazis fought their way inside to kill me. I had seen this movie over three decades ago but until I listened to HHhH the second time around, I hadn’t remembered the movie for what it was. That retroactive memory was thus brought to new and dark life inside me; I put a proper and properly claustrophobic context to the assassins' plight. I felt like I was there. I felt, almost, like one of them.

So, along with Binet, I stand and salute the brave people who fought Nazis in the only way moral and weaker agents of the time could: with opposite and equally brutal force. Because while pacifism is a worthy goal (and a nearly categorically imperative one), sometimes evil must be fought to be contained; for to do otherwise is to practically underwrite its existence.

And yet, to demonize Nazis as somehow singularly and anomalously evil, is to ignore a truth that Alexander Solzhenitsyn framed best: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” ( )
  evamat72 | Mar 31, 2016 |
I loved this book. It's a wonderful examination both of the "fiction" of non-fiction, in other words how much of ourselves we leave in any story that we express, factual or otherwise, and of the bounds of story telling. Binet's author character says at the end that he is still receiving new material even as he feels his book is finished and I think that's a great way of suggesting that we can never know, or deliver, the full facts of any story, historical or otherwise.

I was quite shocked to read through some of the other reviews on here to find that people had read it as a straight novel about Heydrich's assassination, one reviewer even recommended better novels on the subject, whilst complaining about the intrusions in the text by the author! I read it as a treatise about the nature of authorship and truth and I think Binet has constructed a multi-layered and nuanced novel that is one of the best books of recent years.

I realized how clever he was being when after one of his shorter, one line chapters, I understood that Binet himself had just spoken - I think he said that he now understood the kind of book he was writing - the depth of the undertaking struck me hard at that point. ( )
2 vote MartynChuzz | Feb 22, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Laurent Binetprimary authorall editionscalculated
Botto, MargheritaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Corral, RodrigoCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Elewa, AdlyCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kagan, AbbyDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nes, Liesbeth vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Taylor, SamTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Once again, the writer stains the tree of History with his thoughts, but it is not for us to find the trick that would enable us to put the animal back in its carrying cage.

—Osip Mandelstam, "The End of the Novel"
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Gabčík—that's his name—really did exist.
What would be the point of 'inventing' Nazism?
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Book description
Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi secret services, 'the hangman of Prague'. 'the blond beast', 'the most dangerous man in the Third Reich'.

His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says 'Himmler's brain is called Heydrich', which in German spells HHhH.

All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up?

HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life on one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifying modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.
Haiku summary
A Slovak and a
Czech carefully plan Heydrich's
Jozef Gabĉík and
Jan Kubiŝ – remember their
names and bravery.

No descriptions found.

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Imagines the story of two Czechoslovakian partisans responsible for assassinating the "Butcher of Prague" Reinhard Heydrich, traces their escape from the Nazis and recruitment by the British secret service.

(summary from another edition)

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