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HHhH: Exhilarating meta-historical take on Operation Anthropoid

Laurent Binet's novel about the 1942 assassination of the head of Nazi Germany's Gestapo is both neurotic and far too long, but ultimately a successful tome.
A monument to the Czech fighters who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich 
in May 1942. Michael Cizek / AFP
A monument to the Czech fighters who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich in May 1942. Michael Cizek / AFP

On May 27, 1942, two Czechoslovakian soldiers make their way to Prague where they pull off one of the greatest acts of resistance in recorded history: the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, so-called "most dangerous man in the Third Reich".

Some 60 years later, a French schoolteacher sets out to write a novel about the mission. But there's one small problem: he doesn't believe in historical fiction.

This is the premise of HHhH, Laurent Binet's first novel, which won France's Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman when it came out in 2010 and, now in translation, it has gathered a pile of praise from the likes of Martin Amis, Gary Shteyngart and Bret Easton Ellis.

The book follows the narrator, who may or may not be Laurent Binet (he says it is) as he attempts to tell the story of Operation Anthropoid, the name given to the British-orchestrated mission to assassinate Heydrich, head of the Gestapo and "Protector" of Bohemia and Moravia. HHhH refers to a saying circulated within the SS: Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich - Himmler's brain is called Heydrich (Heinrich Himmler was head of the SS). In one of his many meta-narrative asides, the author says he wants to call the book Operation Anthropoid, noting that any other title means he's given into the demands of his publisher, who thought it was "too SF, too Robert Ludlum". Apparently, said publisher (Grasset) managed to convince Binet that it was preferable to market the book as one of the current crop of big, important translated books with inscrutable, four-character titles like Murakami's 1Q84 and Roberto Bolaño's 2666.

HHhH is only really a novel in the most literal sense of the word: in its original mixture of memoir, history and fiction. We follow the narrator as he researches the story, begins to amass documents, travels through Slovakia and the Czech Republic with various female companions, scouring archives and museums. He reads and watches everything he can get his hands on, from movies and TV documentaries to guidebooks and archival materials, sometimes disparaging of what he sees as unworthy portrayals, other times berating himself for his own mistakes. The project takes on an obsessive character: "At this rate," writes Binet, "I will die without even having mentioned the preparations for the attack."

In truth, HHhH is a neurotic book. Though this can sometimes feel tedious or gimmicky, at its best, the author's ambivalence unlocks an exhilarating form of meta-historical fiction. In short chapters, we are introduced to the main characters: the affable assassins, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík, and of course, Heydrich the "Blond Beast". Faced with gaps in historical documentation, the narrator is torn between the temptation to invent, to fictionalise, to inhabit the brains of his protagonists and, on the other, his abhorrence of the "processes of glib falsification" that he loathes in so much historical representation.

Apprehensively flitting in and out of Heydrich's head, the author moves from his childhood stint as a musical prodigy to his brief career in the navy. He traces his rise through the Nazi ranks until he reaches "the cohort of cranks, illiterates, and mental degenerates who populate the Party's higher echelons". Allegedly "the colleague Hitler most respects", Heydrich has a role in nearly all the Nazis' most atrocious accomplishments: he helps organise Kristallnacht and devises the infamous yellow star badges; he's the one who dreams up the egregious Judenräte, the Jewish councils by which Nazi policy was enforced in occupied Europe; he chaired the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was sketched out and was a central and indispensable architect of the Holocaust. Among his many nicknames (Hitler himself called him fondly "the man with the iron heart"), he was called "The Butcher of Prague" after he was sent to occupied Czechoslovakia to clamp down on the Resistance, which he did with unrivalled zeal.

The book's meta-narrative allows the author to come at the story from all angles. He tells it in second-person, first-person, up close and at a distance, letting the tone shift according to topic. We're privy to his every editorial qualm.

He jumps through history, for instance, taking the reader into the brain of 13th-century Bohemian king Wenceslaus I to add depth to a speech about German-Czech animosity that Hitler gave in 1938 during the Sudeten crisis. Once Binet (or his analogue) comes across an interesting character or anecdote, he has trouble letting it go. Ghosts, he calls them uneasily, adding, "I can't keep leaving space for this ever-growing army of shadows." He becomes increasingly ambivalent when Gabcík and Kubiš finally enter the story. After a subtly moving scene in which he describes Gabcík's last view of his native Slovakia out of the window of a bus, he writes: "That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet ... To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself."

All this anxiety and self-deprecation can feel a bit overwrought, somewhat too insistent. By the umpteenth time that the narrator recants something he wrote in a previous chapter or beats himself up for the fictive activity that he clearly is going to continue, one wonders if, like most pathologies, this neurosis isn't a bit self-indulgent. Ultimately, Binet has simply replaced the central conceit of historical fiction (the invention of the past) with a new fiction, that of the author grappling with his story (the invention of the present).

Binet is at his best when he stops agonising over the "ridiculous nature of novelistic invention" and just lets himself run with it. In one of those twists that would seem incredible were it not true, the evening before the assassination, Heydrich visits a palace chapel in Prague to hear a concert of Germanic music: Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, and a piece by his father, the opera singer and composer Bruno Heydrich. It is during this performance that, the narrator suggests, Heydrich experiences his own apotheosis.

"When Heydrich applauds at the end, I can read on his face the arrogant daydream of all great, self-centered megalomaniacs. Heydrich tastes his personal triumph through the posthumous triumph of his father. But triumph and apotheosis are not exactly the same thing."

The book hits its stride about two-thirds in, as it builds to "the novel's bravura moment, its scene of scenes" when the soldiers hide in waiting for Heydrich's car to snake around the bend of Holosovice Street. At this point the narrator begins to "remember" Operation Anthropoid, to metaphysically inhabit his characters, and the duel narratives merge more fluidly into one. He writes, "The Mercedes speeds past, and the most precious part of my imagining follows silently in his slipstream. The air rushes past, the engine drones, the passenger keeps telling his giant chauffeur, "Schneller! Schneller!" Faster, faster, he shouts, but he doesn't know that time has already started to slow down."

The following chapters unfurl like a thriller, a masterwork of suspense weighted by the fact that it all (sort of) really happened. As conflicted as the narrator is about how to tell the story, he is passionately unequivocal when it comes to the story itself, and it is this emotional certitude that propels the story and keeps the novel from dissolving irrevocably into vacillation.

In the final scenes, the prose choked with emotion, he starts to bullet chunks of text, labelling them with the date he (ostensibly) wrote them as if to prolong the experience of telling. "The truth is that I don't want to finish this story," he writes. "I would like to suspend this moment for eternity, when the four men decide not to surrender to their fate but to dig a tunnel."

Of course, the moment can't last forever. Both narratives must come to an end, albeit one more tragically than the other.

In the first half of the book, the narrator grapples with the issue of depicting the first meeting between Gabcík and Kubiš, of which there's no historical documentation. "I'm not yet sure if I'm going to 'visualise' (that is, invent!) this meeting or not," he writes. "If I do, it will be the clinching proof that fiction does not respect anything." The proof comes, and Binet succumbs to that much-maligned "limitless and nefarious power of literature". One just wishes he might have done so a few hundred pages earlier.

Charly Wilder is a writer and editor based in Berlin. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon and the Village Voice.

Updated: May 26, 2012 04:00 AM