This has got to be one of the hardest reviews I’ve written for this blog. Laurent Binet’s HHhH left me scratching my head in terms of both its intention and execution. So I’m going to deviate from my usual form of review and firstly describe what this book is.
On one level HHhH is the story of the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in the Spring of 1942. Heydrich, known by monikers such as ‘The Butcher of Prague’ and ‘The Blond Beast’ is widely considered to be one of the architects of the Holocaust. He oversaw key events in the early years of the Reich including Kristallnacht and, later, plans for the deportation and transporting of Jewish people to extermination camps. Heinrich Himmler was Heydrich’s boss but the saying in the SS was ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, in German ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich’ or HHhH.
The Czechoslovak government-in-exile sent two men, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, trained by British SOE forces into Prague where Heydrich had been appointed as Acting Reich Protector. Operation Anthropoid, the mission assassinate Heydrich, was botched but Heydrich died of his injuries a week later.
However, the book is not just the telling of this tale but it is also the story of Binet’s attempts to write a non-fiction novel. He recounts the process by which he writes the book, the problems he encounters and how he gets to the final narrative. The nearest book that I can think of is, John Fowles The French Lieutenant’s Woman. However, the process narrative is nowhere near as charming in HHhH. Binet gives us footnotes, asides and attempts at humour most of which are wearying for the reader. He also, which I found to be the biggest drawback, plays games. He tells us that Heydrich wanted to known as ‘H’ to copy the British head of intelligence known as ‘M’. In the next chapter he says he made a mistake. ‘M’ is the character in James Bond, ‘C’ the head of MI6. This unreliable narration is an irritant and is incredibly self-conscious.
But there were parts of the book that worked well. I was drawn into the story of the two would-be assassins and interested enough in the descriptions of Heydrich, his wife Lina and other figures in the Reich to look up their wider stories. The book did also gain an impetus towards the end. I found the scenes where the families and friends of the two conspirators are rounded-up horrendous reading, although given what’s come before it’s hard not to feel your emotions are being manipulated.
HHhH won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. I think it’s a book that divides readers and I personally prefer a straightforward fictional account such as Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale. For some alternative views of HHhH take a look at The View from the Blue House , WinstonsDad’s Blog or For Winter’s Nights. I bought my copy of the book.