Review: Laurent Binet – HHhH

hhhh-by-laurent-binetThis 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.

22 thoughts on “Review: Laurent Binet – HHhH

  1. Interesting review Sarah and a good reminder for me why I dumped this one from my wishlist. It’s one of those that I keep thinking I should perhaps re-instate but I’m honestly not that taken with the idea, though I suppose I should applaud (and support) attempts to do something different in terms of structure and storytelling methodology. Though it doesn’t sound like that attempt is terribly successful in this instance.


  2. I wavered with this when shopping over Christmas, picked it up, put it down, picked it up again – finally put it down. It struck me as the sort of book, I might like to read, without actually spending any money on it – just in case it was a turkey.

    Having read your review, I’m still wavering – probably won’t bother….I’ll probably just move Kerr/Gunther closer to the top of the pile of the unreads.


  3. Sarah, I am beginning to wonder how many assassination attempts the Allied Forces, especially British SAS or SOE, might have orchestrated against top officials of the Reich. Of course, the reverse is true as well. WW2 novels are so convincing that you can’t tell fiction and fact apart. There must be a solid basis for all such stories. I liked the cover and the title and what it means.


    1. Interestingly Prashant the book does address this issue as it assesses some of the literature that is already out there. I agree about the cover and the title and it was one of the reasons that I bought the book.


  4. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – It sounds as though this book tried to be something that didn’t quite work out. I’m interested in the historical aspects, but I think honestly that I’d be too pulled out of that by the notes on writing. As I think about your excellent review I’m in mind of lectures I’ve been to that were like that. The topic was interesting but the lecturer sidetracked the audience with distractions and bumbled in getting back on track. I think I’ll wait on this one…


  5. This is a book that has catapulted on and off my wishlist as a few of my bookselling colleagues have read it and had mixed reviews from them. Only one really enjoyed it but like you I think the narrative structure proved a sticking point for most although the historical detail was good. Tricky…


  6. Interesting review, Sarah. My husband bought this, but I was not so sure. He read it in December and liked it a lot. Based on your description, it surprises me that he liked it, although he does have a higher tolerance than I do for “gimmicks”. He did tell when he first started it that he thought it must be non-fiction. Since we have it in house, and the time period and subject are my favorite to read about, I am sure I will be reading it. Your review makes me want to read it more and sooner, just to see what I will think. I have just gotten interested in (trying out) some postmodern mysteries, and this sounds like it is in the same vein.


    1. Ahhh. Just when I thought your husband and I had the same reading tastes! I’ve just read a really good book and I thought of you as it’s been out in the US for a while Paul Doiron’s ‘The Poacher’s Son’. Have you read it?


  7. I know, I was surprised that you and he had different takes on this book. (He is reading The Dark Winter just now.)

    I have not heard of The Poacher’s Son, but of course I looked it up and it sounds interesting. I am looking forward to your review. (As a long range goal, I am planning to read a mystery from every state, so it would fit in well.)


  8. I wasn’t sure about this one, but I think your review has made me decide not to go for this one, at least for now. I suppose if someone gave it to me or lent it to me…. The thing is, half the time you think ‘life’s too short, and there are sooo many books out there, why read something unappealing?’ But then sometimes, those last resort books turn out well… Very helpful review, anyway.


    1. It’s funny Moira, but I feel that about a lot of books. If they are given to me or lent, then I’ll probably read it. But am I really prepared to spend money on it? Perhaps a sign of the times…


  9. Great review and very interesting to read. I have seen lots of glowing reviews of this one but never added it to my wishlist as I had the niggling feeling it might be a bit too much hard work without being all that rewarding to get to the end. It sounds like my suspicions might have been right.


    1. Thanks Marie. I think it’s one of those books that, if it crosses your path, is worth reading but I wouldn’t seek it out too much. It’s definitely one to divide readers.


  10. Pingback: The Best of January’s Reading « crimepieces

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.