A breezily charming novel, with a thrilling story that also happens to be true, by a gifted young author amusingly anguished over the question of how to tell it … In principle there’s nothing not to like about Laurent Binet’s acclaimed debut, and HHhH is certainly a thoroughly captivating performance. Whether you find it something more than that will depend on how you feel about the application of breezy charm and amusingly anguished authorial self-reflexiveness to a book about the Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich, who must be one of the most unfunny figures in recorded history.
It’s about his assassination, specifically, and the undersung Czech resistance heroes who carried it out; an angle that licenses a certain jauntiness in the tone. But Heydrich’s icily demonic character necessarily dominates the book, and his pivotal roles in the key atrocities of the era, from Kristallnacht to the final solution itself, take up a substantial part of the narrative. (He was Himmler’s right-hand man, and the title refers to a piece of ponderous Nazi waggishness: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich – Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). So the question lingers: is the corpse-strewn story of Heydrich’s ascent to head of the Gestapo and “Protector” of annexed Czechoslovakia (where he earned his nickname, “the Butcher of Prague”) in any significant way enriched by its author’s playful anxieties about his girlfriend, musings on his dreams, or even by his more obviously pertinent struggles over whether to invent the dialogue or imagine the inner feelings of his real-life characters?
The shifting nature of Binet’s self-insertions, not to mention the very poised assurance of his writing, makes it a harder question to answer than you might expect. At their crudest they seem purely self-regarding: there to present him as an appealing type of slacker-scholar, glued to the History Channel, addicted to video-games, given to amiably flip outbursts of opinion, while also winningly obsessive over questions of micro-historical accuracy, and obsessed with his own obsessiveness. Was Heydrich’s Mercedes black or green? Which side of the train did the exiled head of Czechoslovak secret services sit on during his clandestine trip through Nazi Germany to set up the resistance networks in Prague?
Elsewhere the intrusions seem to be more about assembling an on-the-hoof literary manifesto. Quick nods and jabs are delivered at the many books and movies that have inspired or threatened Binet along the way. Techniques of various kinds are held up for summary judgment (“faithful to my long-held disgust for realistic novels, I say to myself: Yuk”). Madame Bovary is found wanting; Salammbô is praised. Milan Kundera crops up a few times, and his light-footed, epigrammatic style is clearly a strong influence. By contrast, the appearance of Jonathan Littell’s Wagnerian, horror-suffused reconstruction of Hitler’s doomed eastern campaign, The Kindly Ones, provokes deep consternation. “You might have guessed that I was a bit disturbed by the publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel, and by its success …” After handing it some faint praise, Binet finds the formula for what he really wants to do, which is to see it off altogether: “Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones is simply ‘Houellebecq does nazism’.”
On this note, it’s worth saying that although Littell’s book has serious flaws, it does attempt to feel its way into the inner psychological textures of nazism, whereas Binet tends to settle for the simpler procedure of external caricature: “rodent-faced” Himmler, Rohm “like a pig”. The problem with this approach becomes apparent in his description of Heydrich himself, whose “negroid” lips and “hooked” nose – offered up as evidence against his reputed Aryan good looks – raise the unintended suggestion that if he’d only been a bit more perfectly Teutonic he might not have been so evil.
Sometimes – more interestingly – the interventions function as a kind of Greek chorus to the drama of stately, fateful convergence between Heydrich and his assassins as they move through time and space toward the bend in the Prague street in May of 1942, where the momentous encounter takes place. Exhorting his heroes to action, ruminating on the contingencies of history, opening unexpected global vistas out of small intimate moments, the otherwise slightly ingratiating narrative voice becomes at once more reticent and more resonant in these passages, its excitable tones serving the real grandeur of the story rather than the fretfulness of its author.
And it really is a great story; a tale of astounding courage worthy of Binet’s claim – “one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history” – and certainly powerful enough, in the end, to overcome whatever qualms one might have about the telling. It isn’t that Binet brings any major new information to light, but he marshals and deploys his materials with exceptional dramatic skill.
In order for his climactic scenes – a cascade of triumphs, near-disasters and outright catastrophes, including the reprisal massacre at Lidice – to make their full impact, quite a complicated set of political and historical circumstances have to be laid in place. Aside from the well-documented career of Heydrich himself, there are the more scantily documented lives of the Czech fighters to be portrayed. There is the motivation for the dastardly traitor Karel Curda to be clarified, the effect of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy on the exiled Czech government in London to be elucidated, the legacy of the original German settlers in the region to be traced down the centuries and connected to Hitler’s (literal) carpet-chewing hysteria at the thought of Czechoslovak resistance to the Reich. There are crucial logistical points to be reckoned with, such as the topography of Prague streets or the disconcerting jamming tendency of the British-built Sten gun. Binet manages it all with beautiful lucidity, and by the time you reach the book’s devastating finale, it’s this discreet storytelling mastery, rather than the more grabby po-mo flourishes, that leaves the deepest impression. “Kundera does nazism” – to adapt Binet’s own phrase – may have been the aim, but the book owes its real force to something more solidly conventional.
• James Lasdun’s It’s Beginning to Hurt is published by Vintage.
Source: The Guardian