Laurent Binet’s award-winning debut novel, HHhH, is fascinating, compelling, and frustrating, for reasons too intertwined to be separated. The book is about Reinhard Heydrich, the tall, blond Nazi leader who best exemplified Hitler’s notion of the Aryan superman as a specimen of physical perfection. More specifically, it’s about Operation Anthropoid, the mission to assassinate Heydrich when he was stationed in Prague, and the men who carried it out. And more specifically than that, it’s about the writing of a historical novel, and the tension between Binet’s deep desire to tell this story, to celebrate its heroes and make it clear why killing Heydrich was a service to the world, and to balance his concerns that he might dishonor their memories—and history itself—if he indulges in too much fictional sweetening.
When E.L. Doctorow was asked, regarding a famous scene in Ragtime, whether J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford ever really met, Doctorow replied, “They have now.” That’s the kind of attitude that makes Binet shudder. When the Czech capitol falls, he commits a cliché—“At 9:00 a.m., the first German tank enters the city”—then immediately retracts it: “Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague. The most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars.” At another point, he quotes something that Heydrich is reported to have said in conversation, then interrupts the narrative to admit that he finds this “lame,” and indulges himself by drawing the scene with the dialogue he’d have put in Heydrich’s mouth. Afterward, he concedes that, even if witness accounts are finally unreliable, and what Heydrich really said is lost to history, who is he to improve on the word of someone who was really there? He threads his research in with the action he’s describing, and he’s never happier than when he discovers the British army’s personnel reports on two of his major players, and can replicate a just-the-facts list of their notable qualities: “A good reliable soldier, quiet, comes in for a certain amount of good-natured teasing,” “Close combat: very good,” “Driving: bike motorbike car.”
Is this cerebral historical novel a postmodern stunt, with the author taking on the character of someone who, by nature, is especially ill-equipped to be writing historical fiction? Probably not, unless Binet is so devoted to his mask that he stays in character while giving interviews. But the book also has a strong pulse, partly because he really cares about this story, and partly because his method is a rebuke to other writers who, he clearly thinks, have treated this material less than respectfully. (He has a special place in his heart for Jonathan Littell, author of The Kindly Ones. The literary site The Millions recently published some of the material attacking Littell that Binet’s publisher cut from the finished text.)
There’s something naïve and moralistic about Binet’s suspicion of imagination and rejection of playfulness. But he isn’t wrong when he notes that the Holocaust has been debased by being used as fodder for too many cheap fantasies, by writers with a fraction of his thoughtfulness and wit. His mind is sharp enough that it’s lively work, following his battles with himself, and with his publishers, who forced the title HHhH on him. (It’s an acronym for a German-language wartime saying that translates to, “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”) He wanted to call the book Operation Anthropoid, but his publisher wouldn’t have it. “Too Robert Ludlum.”