April 29, 2013

Book Review: "HHhH" by Laurent Binet

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HHhH by Laurent Binet

By Laurent Binet
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

Laurent Binet's HhhH--the title means Himmler's brain is called a Heydrich--is a historical novel that attempts to turn the genre on its head, taking the form of a kind of research memoir.

The story concerns Rinehart Heydrich, the "Butcher of Prague" and reputedly the "most dangerous man in Hitler's cabinet", and also his two assassins Jozef Gab?ik and Jan Kubiš--but the real star is the first person narrator, who may or may not be the author Laurent Binet himself but nonetheless accompanies us from the first page to last, informing us of his research methods, the pitfalls of historical fiction, the traps that authors and filmmakers who previously tried to portray this material fell into, the fact that his characters are not in fact characters but real people, etc. "I've been talking rubbish," the narrator tells us after one particularly engaging section, and he interrupts us in the same way again and again throughout. The book is told in 257 short chapters, about half of which move the story forward in some way, and half of which involve the narrator expressing insecurity with his technique, motives or abilities.

Binet--both the author and the narrator--shows his cards early on, in part because he is simply recounting known history that the reader could presumably look up. Heydrich, whose character the first two-thirds or so of the novel is spent establishing, will die. He will be killed by Jozef Gab?ik and Jan Kubiš, who will then also die, at which point the novel will be over. The story involves parachute drops behind enemy lines, false identities, ambition, true evil, jamming machine guns, a bloody showdown, and much more--in short, it has the makings of a fast-paced thriller.

Binet's attempt to strip the tale of its suspense by refusing to use the established techniques of a novel makes for an interesting, and mostly engaging, read. He's also chosen his material well, because the story is so inherently thrilling that for most of the book it seems like the narrative is about to turn on its head and become the suspense novel it was always meant to be. And that's the nature of suspense Binet has created--will there be suspense? Will the author/narrator succumb to the trappings of the novel, the tools at his disposal, and give in to the thrilling tale that this story wants to be? The answer is both yes and no--the author/narrator never fully exits the frame, but once the guns are blazing and our characters have commenced with the killing and the dying, Binet can't help but let himself get swept up in the story for a few long passages, and the effect carries over to the reader.

Binet's technique--which could be described as the 'one step forward and two steps back' storytelling style, also has the advantages of being a very clever device. This novel contains a somewhat exhaustive biography of Heydrich, a recap of Nazism from the first stirrings all the way to the Holocaust, a biographical sketch of Jozef Gab?ik and Jan Kubiš, and an account of the narrative that ends in these three characters' deaths. In other words, Binet has lots of information to convey. The constant interruption of the narrator and the novelty of the style allow Binet to convey his facts naturally.

Still, I was left with nagging questions at the end of book. Binet's thesis could be boiled down to something like this--most fictional retellings of history take their most powerful elements from authorial invention, which strips the Truth (yes, capital "t") of its power. So he is trying to retell history without inventing anything himself. The problem is, I wasn't sure that I saw the inherent value of that idea, and I didn't think Binet necessarily accomplished what he set out to.

For one thing, Heydrich's character--who takes up two thirds of the book--relies heavily on established archetypes of the evil Nazi. Not that Nazis aren't evil, but what's the point of using this exciting new technique where all of our presuppositions are thrown out the window, if the character we spend the most time with could be explained easily enough by drawing the image of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark into the readers mind?

Also, by the end of this story, when Gab?ik is trapped in a bunker waiting to die, I wanted to know what was happening inside his head--Binet wouldn't dare take us there, though, because Gab?ik's thoughts don't exist as an actual document anywhere. I also thought it was very strange, during that same scene, that Binet has Gab?ik and his comrades attempting to dig a tunnel. That tiny detail, buried in a long stream-of-consciousness scene, smacked of invention. So it was disappointing that in the end, after all the hemming and hawing, Binet couldn't help but fall back on the techniques of fiction after all.

I suppose that may have been the point. The suspense here was in the question of whether or not the kind of book Binet set out to write was even possible. In an early chapter, the narrator says, "I am struck all the same by the fact that, in every case, fiction wins out over history." Does the fact that fiction ultimately won out in HHhH lessen the achievement?

Out of 10: 8.5

Read even more about HHhH: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Travis Fortney at 2:42 PM, April 29, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |