H H h H – Laurent Binet (tr. Sam Taylor)

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HH h H. It’s short for Himmler’s Hirn Heisst Heydrich, or Himmler’s Brain is Called Heydrich.

An enigmatic title for an enigmatic book. Binet is a French writer who develops a fascination for the story of Rheinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi secret services and overlord of the Czech “protectorate” during WW2. This book is the story of the attempted assassination of Heydrich by two partisan officers, one Czech, and one Slovak, both sent from London by the exiled regime in an attempt to bolster their claims to represent a significant resistance movement.

We see Heydrich develop from disgraced naval officer to indispensable organ of Nazi propaganda, terror and rule. We see his significant role in the development of the final solution, his part in the first mass killings in Eastern Europe, and his relationship to the massacre at Lidice, an important propaganda failure, and later a slogan promoting Russian resistance to the Nazi invasion.

However, this is not an ordinary book. The author quotes Barthes and has a tender conscience when it comes to historical fiction. He will not make it up, will only include events, dialogue and facts that he knows to be true. So this becomes a book about how to write historical fiction. Binet shares his sources and comments on them. He plays with alternative possibilities. On the occasions when he does make up sections of “historical fiction”, he does this only to reject them as untrue and inauthentic. For much of the book he tiptoes round his subject. Many people might find this frustrating, even boring. As a student of English I am interested in the nature of fiction, and the concomitant ideas of realism and truth, so I carried on, with some curiosity about where it would all lead.

In fact part two of the book does lead to an exciting narrative, beginning with the day our two heroes meet Heydrich as his car turns a corner; one faces him with his unreliable sten gun; the other, arriving on a bicycle, takes action. Binet writes these sections with drive and economy of language, and for many this will be the most interesting section.

The existential dilemma of the writer of historical fiction is examined here; writing creates myth, and myth becomes reality. Not everybody who visits their local bookshop is really going to care about that!

Lidice

The Guardian – Review

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4 thoughts on “H H h H – Laurent Binet (tr. Sam Taylor)

  1. Did you ultimately enjoy the examination of the “existential dilemma of the writer”? I found myself continually smiling at Binet’s cheeky approach, while at the same time realizing (as you did) that it wouldn’t appeal to a great many readers.

    1. Yes – I did enjoy those aspects of the book, at times. At others I just wished he’d get on with the story. I enjoyed it more when Fowles took a similar approach in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

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