Review: HHhH, Laurent Binet

THIS BOOK RIGHT HERE. LISTEN.

Listen to me about this book. It is awfully good, and I am going to recommend it to you very highly. I am going to highly recommend it in spite of:

  1. Nazi brutality; and
  2. Translated (from French)

Never mind about the grammar of that list. Just understand that it is a list of two things I am unfond of. I read HHhH because I got a copy for free from a coworker and finished my other book on the subway. And also because I picked HHhH to win the Tournament of Books (it did not), and I felt an obligation to it for that reason. I did not expect to feel fond of it. I also did not expect that in the eventuality of my loving it, I would have any difficulty in describing to other people why I loved it so much. The reason for that is you can’t put “dear sweet book” into the same sentence with “assassination of a Nazi spymaster”. I mean you can. But it looks disingenuous and denies the emotional oomf the book has.

The beginning: The narrator’s father tells him a story about a Czech and a Slovak who killed Himmler’s right-hand man, Reinhard Heydrich.

The end (not spoilers, just history): Some brave people died, and you wish they had not.

The whole: HHhH (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is the dearest book about Nazi officers that ever I have read, though admittedly it did not face much competition. It is the story of Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague and one of the architects of the Final Solution, and of the two men who assassinated him and were later killed by Nazi soldiers. Binet is not writing fiction, exactly, though he calls the book a novel–everything he writes about Reinhard Heydrich and the men who killed him is true.

Everyone finds it normal, fudging reality to make a screenplay more dramatic, or adding coherence to the narrative of a character whose real path probably included too many random ups and downs, insufficiently loaded with significance. It’s because of people like that, forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories, that an old friend, familiar with all these fictional genres and therefore fatally accustomed to these processes of glib falsification, can say to me in innocent surprise: “Oh, really, it’s not invented?”

 

No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of “inventing” Nazism?

I loved the narrator’s openness. Binet’s narrator (I am trying not to assume it’s really Binet himself) talks about history the way Nicholson Baker’s Anthologist talks about poetry: generously, in full awareness of its tragedy and comedy, and admitting freely his own feelings and wishes about it. He tells stories because they are moving, and then admits he didn’t need to tell them but he just wanted to. He refuses to buy a book (Heydrich’s wife’s memoirs) that he thinks might humanize Heydrich, except that in a later section he says off-handedly that he bought the book after all. In one chapter he sneers at a scholar for getting an easy detail wrong, and two chapters on, he remarks that actually that writer was quite correct and he was wrong.

Some reviews I’ve seen of HHhH have said that they found the narrator fussy. He does fret a lot and openly about the veracity and manner of his storytelling. But luckily this is one of those books where you can probably tell right away whether you’ll like it or not, because the way the writing is at the beginning is exactly the way it is all the way through. For me it was perfect. When I read historical fiction, I tend to fret about what’s real and what’s invented, and I live for the notes at the end that tell you what is what. Binet draws back the authorial curtain to reveal his own anxiety about the perils and pitfalls of converting history into fiction, and I loved it.

Oh, I don’t know what to say about this book. I loved it. You should please read it and then comment on this post or email me to tell me how much you loved it.

Edit to add: The lovely Jackie of Farm Lane Books informed me that Binet’s publisher redacted references Binet made to Jonathan Littell’s book The Kindly Ones, a fictional memoir of an aged SS officer. Evidently the passages were left out of all editions of the book, not just the English translation as I initially thought. This made me sad because the Littell references that stayed in the book charmed me to pieces; and anyway I have a grudge against The Kindly Ones for having the same title as (and being better SEO’d than) the ninth volume of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

As in so many other cases, we find that The Millions is there for us in the clinch. Knowing what the people would want, they published the missing pages. Hurrah! Some of these bits ended up staying in HHhH, but many were cut. Here is my favorite cut-out bit, which also encapsulates a lot of what I love about Binet’s narrator.

Yesterday, I met a young woman who works in a library. She told me about an old lady, a former Resistance fighter, who regularly borrows books. One day, the old lady took home Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Soon afterwards, she brought it back, exclaiming: “What is this shit?” When I heard this, I thought straightaway that it would require a great deal of willpower not to put this anecdote in my book.

So there you go.

29 thoughts on “Review: HHhH, Laurent Binet

    • I don’t typically like translations. I know it’s an awful way to be. But often when I read something in translation, it sounds so weird and stilted I can’t focus on the story. :/

  1. *stamps foot* I’ve had this out from the library so many times, and the first couple pages always make me smile (what a voice/style), but I’ve never made it through yet (just timing, nothing else) and now you’ve made me REALLY wish that I have a copy right here.

  2. I loved this book as well. I made it a priority to read before I visited Prague this past summer, and I enjoyed it from page 1. I’m a sucker for metafiction, so I really appreciated the way Binet pulled back “the authorial curtain” you mention above. When I was in Prague, I went to visit the crypt where the assassins took cover — but it was a Monday, and closed for tours. Imagine my disappointment!

  3. I was not especially interested in this book when I saw it in the Tournament since I am not really in love with Nazi spy stories, but this intrigues me! I like the idea of a book fretting with truth and matters of storytelling. I’m curious. I’ll have to see if my library has it!

    • I am not really in love with Nazi stories, but as you know I am very very into spy stories. I bet your library does have it! Right? They must. (In my imagination all libraries buy all Tournament of Books books. :p)

  4. This review completely surprised me because I honestly had no idea what this book was about (despite a friend of mine who’s been sending me reviews of it by email ever since it came out) and this wasn’t what I thought it was at all. And now I want to read it right away, probably in French. So thank you.

    • YAYY I hope so too! What did you think about Binet’s references to The Kindly Ones? They were wasted on me because I never read the book.

  5. I’ve heard that most of the references to The Kindly Ones were cut from the English translation as they were so offensive! I read (and loved) The Kindly Ones and didn’t think most of the comments were justified, but I do like an author who isn’t afraid to voice their opinion :-)

    • Oh no! Really? THIS IS WHY I DO NOT LIKE READING TRANSLATIONS. Dammit. Offensive how? Like, he was really really insulting to the author of The Kindly Ones?

  6. Have you read City of Thieves by David Benioff? This review makes me think of that book, and I think it, too, is quite dear, considering it takes place during the siege of Leningrad. I think you would enjoy it.

  7. I’m looking forward to reading this although I think I will need to be in exactly the right frame of mind for that sort of double narration.

  8. Pingback: Review: I’ll Be Seeing You, Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan | Reading the End

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