Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Book Review - HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor

New York: Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013              ISBN 9781250033345

I'm not sure where to start in writing about this book. I'm not sure where to start because I'm not sure yet what I think about it - it is certainly a tour de force, but whether it's a great novel I don't know - a great edifice with foundations of sand perhaps?

HHhH (the title coming from the phrase "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich", or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich"), is a Postmodern novel dealing with an event that occurred in the Modernist mecca of Prague, during World War II, which heralded the apotheosis and destruction of the Modernist experiment. The "plot" centres around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi overlord of Bohemia and Moravia, the stump of Czechoslovakia that was incorporated into the Third Reich in 1939.

Laurent Binet is also a major character in the novel, as the very short (often less than a page) chapters move from Heydrich's life and the assassination attempt to the author's obsession with the assassination, Heydrich, the assassins, and Prague during the war.

Binet writes that he is at pains for most of the novel to avoid fictionalizing events, and breaks the story on more than one occasion to point out the previous chapter had too much novelistic activity in it. This work is like dissecting a live leopard - while you are watching a great cat prowl and try to make a kill, at the same time someone is cutting it open and showing you how the heart is circulating the blood and how the muscles are working.

Binet is in fact lulling the reader into his (fictionalized) version of events - pointing out some of the moving parts, but glossing over other fictionalized parts of his work - cleverly bringing the two strands of his novel - him in the present and the assassins and Heydrich in the past - together, so that in the final climax of the story Binet writes himself into the crypt of the Church where the assassins meet their end.

The book is well-written, a page turner to the end. The short chapters mean that Binet never gets bogged-down in either time-period for too long, with the longest chapter in the book to do with the assassination, as it should be, and as works very well.

So having written all that, why do I have doubts about this book? Binet (or the narrator from the present day), is a bit too fey - forever stating the importance of the events he's writing about and giving us information as to the enormity of Nazi crimes, but always veering towards the path of sensationalism and over-dramatisation (which he often mentions and berates himself for). You get the sense when reading that this book is written as literature, and an attempt at great literature, and yet at the end of the novel I didn't feel like I knew something new about the human race, which is always an indicator of great fiction.

The method of interweaving chapters from the present day and World War II, and Binet's constant noting of where he fictionalizes, leaves the reader "hovering" over the story - never fully being immersed in the narrative or the characters - and given Binet's sometimes flippant turn of phrase the reader is almost at an ironic distance, which becomes a dissonance owing the the horrific nature of Heydrich's actions and the terror of the assassination and its aftermath.

Binet constantly worries throughout the book about information he includes - whether it is relevant or not to his main story - and he probably does try to stuff too much information into the book: it may have been stronger without some of the more superfluous facts.

Given the way HHhH is written, the question occurs as to whether Binet would have better served himself and his subject by writing a book of non-fiction. It's a question that, by the end of the book, I was no closer to answering. Binet mentions Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones in HHhH - partly to damn with faint praise, and partly to emphasise that HHhH sticks to the facts - and in my opinion this is unfortunate, as it reminded me that The Kindly Ones is a better novel than HHhH, when applying my test above.

However, HHhH is a fine exemplar of a certain type of writing, and is enjoyable to read. I do recommend it.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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