Laurent Binet’s HHhH (Review)

I read fiction as a search for truth. Fiction, at its best, is a branch of mathematics that discovers and elucidates literary laws. New ideas produce new forms which in turn open space for new ideas. When a discovery is made, such as Dostoevsky’s law that if Christ came back to modern day (in his case 19th century Russia) that he would be killed again, this time by those purporting to worship him, it forever alters our understanding of the world and of our literary science. Other writers, in turn, use it as a starting point for other research, seek to prove it another way, or seek to overturn it altogether with the discovery of another, better law.

These laws or insights take the form of religious and philosophical truths, such as The Grand Inquisitor’s Law above, truths about form, such as the (long over-turned) Classical Unities in drama or that a joke and a poem can be combined, resulting in the spiritual crow-bar known as a Buddhist Koan, truths about reality, perception, and politics…just about anything, really.

One law that has certainly been proven but which is still widely ignored, perhaps most egregiously by American writers, is that art can never be an accurate portrayal of real life.

Laurent Binet, debut author of HHhH (which stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich – Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich) and a professor of French Literature, has swallowed this law whole. In authorial intrusions scattered throughout the book, he wrings his hands like they’re the necks of chickens and he has guests coming over after church about misrepresenting his real life heroes.

“I have no evidence that Gabcik and Kubis’s clothes were provided by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive). In fact, it’s more likely that this was dealt with by Moravec’s Czech services. So there’s no reason why the NCO who looks after them should be British. Oh, what a pain…”

Milan Kundera once implied that he was ashamed to make up names for his characters, but Binet does him one better.

“In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?”

The oh-so-true story Binet tells is ridiculously compelling. In 1942 two former Czechoslovakian soldiers, under orders from their government in exile in London, parachute into Prague with the sole mission of assassinating the Nazi in charge and architect of the final solution, Reinhard Heydrich. Prague is beautiful! The Czechs are noble! The heroes are handsome and brave! The resistance is resourceful and fearless, although made up of housewives, barmen, receptionists and other ordinary folk! Heydrich is a Nazi’s Nazi!

Binet is really excited about his heroes and villains and really loves Prague. So he wants to get it right. No dramatizations! No made up dialogue! Only, sometimes he gets carried away and makes things up anyway. How else will readers care? But directly after any such dramatic intemperance he repudiates himself as though that bit of fictionalization was a bottle of vodka. “Never again…”

I enjoyed the book until about halfway through, when it became clear that Binet wasn’t going to push his notions about truth and fiction any further than where he started. After yet another lapse into fiction late in the novel he tells us it happened again and that he gives up. Yet the storytelling proceeds in exactly the same fashion before and after he ‘gives up.’ It’s clear he’s lying about something. Could it be his purported disgust at fictionalization? Methinks Binet doth protest too much…

Because the truth is, and Binet, as a professor of French Literature can’t help but be aware, that while reality cannot be recreated through words, that is fiction’s strength, not its weakness. Art intensifies the real. It stands in allegorical space, allowing the events to resonate past their mundane context. French Literature has explored (and exploded) this basic tenet since at least Proust, how could Binet have gotten stuck on such a minor and easily dismissed error? Not to mention WWII literature. Has he never read Maus? Either he’s disingenuous or an idiot. Regardless, he and his book are frauds. At one point one of his girlfriends calls him, he says, “a little shit,” and I think she would know.

I posit that Binet’s fascination with this true story comes from its inherent and uncanny relationship to fiction. The image itself of parachutists over Prague feels closer to Hollywood than work-a-day history. The heroes are charming and gallant. The stakes are high. The odds are against them. Good and evil are black and white. These age-old trappings of fiction are what got Binet all hot and bothered in the first place. So why not just write a screenplay or a novel and let his heroes live in mythic space? I suspect its because Binet is not writer enough for the job. Often his “lapses” into the dramatic are so dull that I didn’t even notice them until Binet whispered apologies into my ear. HHhH is a pleasing enough read but that’s mainly because the sections are short and we are already primed (by vulgar fictions) to invest in the story.

Another literary law, this one discovered by Tolstoy, is that all military reports are lies. If it was truth Binet thought he was adhering to by using official records, I can but shake my head.

My expectations were high, I admit. Formal experiments are always interesting, but doubly, triply so when expectations are subverted by a depth of emotion or sincerity, and so this book claimed.

For other readers excited by the promise and then betrayed by the execution of HHhH, I suggest The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud. It is one of the best books I have read in the past ten years. It’s got your dilemmas between truth and fiction and then some and if I wasn’t so tired I’d used a footnote to tell you how.

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Unnamed Assailants: Kent Haruf’s Benediction (Review)

I bought a used copy of Haruf’s Plainsong a couple years after it came out. My private study of all things Kansan was in its infancy and I was excited to read a major work by another Great Plains writer, but whenever I opened the book I shortly closed it again. The prose simply left me limp.

Spare prose describing the familiar world is, to me, repellent. And when applied to the culture of the plains, redundant. This distaste for ‘realism’ is one of my limitations as a reader. But realism itself, it can and has been argued, reinforces the (corrupt) status quo.

…sigh. Let me reset. Haruf is a good writer and Benediction is a moving book. An old man named Dad Lewis is dying. His wife and daughter tend to him. He rejected his gay son and regrets it but the boy is never coming back. Across the street a little girl has moved in with her grandmother. A couple other women in the town, a elderly mother and late middle aged daughter, have started buying the little girl gifts, including a bicycle. By the last, gripping chapter, the old man has died and during the disruptions caused by his memorial, the little girl goes missing. The perfect tension of that scene, of the past well and safely buried and the future imperilled, held fast in the web-bright stillness of a small Plains town, is the purpose of the book and I suspect its inspiration. Some of the other chapters feel like moving the furniture and a whole side plot involving a liberal preacher could have been deleted altogether.

The travails of the said preacher proceed like Dostoyevsky for Dummies. He’s too pure for his wife, too pure for his teenage son, and too pure by half for the descendants of the Wild West gunmen that settled the Colorado High Plains. He delivers a sermon about taking that ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff from the Gospel literally and waging peace upon the Arab world and the congregation walks out. Later unnamed assailants beat him on the street.

Unnamed assailants… anything unpleasant in Benediction goes unnamed. Even the cancer that kills Dad Lewis isn’t properly named. The angry congregants who abandon the preacher only spring into existence at that every moment, each and every one unnamed. Unnamed also is everything that troubles the town, everything that robs it of its children, everything that poisons the land, everything that threatens to wipe Holt, Colorado off the map in the next twenty or thirty years, and the sordid process of settlement.

I would not have been so bothered by this had the book not ended the way it did. Exclusion is paramount to art. You can’t include everything. (Spoilers)

That was on a night in August. Dad Lewis died early that morning and the young girl Alice from next door got lost in the evening and then found her way home in the dark by the streetlights of town and so returned to the people who loved her.

And in the fall the days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees and in the winter the wind blew from the mountains and out on the high plains of Holt County there were overnight storms and three-day blizzards.

This is the only moment in the novel where the natural and the general take focus away from the human and the specific. Suddenly we are in the realm of the eternal. These tales take on the force and the permanence of the weather itself. This is one of the highest and best tricks in literary art, like closing the circuit, completing the chord.

Yet, for me, all was discord. That last paragraph was unearned. The town of Holt, or the towns it stands in for,  has not earned the “Sunrise, sunset” treatment. It was built in haste and will soon fall alongside its fellows unless its way of life is re-imagined.

Haruf’s Holt, as seen in Benediction is not ‘real,’– where are the Mexican immigrants, the meth labs, the Pizza Huts?– nor imagined, nor re-imagined so much as regurgitated. And those upchucked ideas were rotten even in the 1950s.

And here is the thing about the kind of plain style Haruf employs: it is the best language with which to tell lies.

Now I am not calling Haruf a liar. I think he is a good writer and is probably a good man.  He’s trying to tell good stories that feel true. It’s just that what feels true about the Midwest, the West, about American rural life, generally, are lies.

In a recent article in Kirkus, Haruf describes his approach:

“The longer I’ve written about it, my attempt has been to make it appear to be every town,” he now says. “What happens there happens everywhere—pregnant teenagers, lonely old men and so on—and it became important to me to tell stories that happen every place.”

This McDonald’s hamburger mentality, then, is what precludes Haruf from telling stories that depend on the reality of the region. Too bad!

My favorite scene feels like it came from another book, a book written by a Haruf who didn’t worry about the average reader following along and just turned his considerable talent toward what simply caught his eye.

The little girl, Alice, is picnicking with the old women one afternoon. The ladies have some wine. Everyone lies down outside and takes a short nap. (Already, this is very unusual behavior.) Out of nowhere, it is decided that they will swim naked(!) in a nearby stock tank.

The three women and the girl walked out of the barn carrying the towels and the lawn chars and the leftover wine and went in through the gate and crossed the hot empty corral, going out into the pasture through the far gate, and walked along the path worn by the cattle alongside  the fence and stopped at the stock tank. There was a pad of concrete laid around it, with dirt and manure below it and mud on the low side of the tank where the tank overflowed, the mud pocked with the deep split hoofprints of cattle. The tank was brimming full. Behind it, the windmill ran water whenever the wind gusted up, the pump banged and clanked, the rod jerked up and down, then cold fresh clean water spouted out through a long pipe.

They set the lawn chairs in a line back from the tank. Alice stepped up on the concrete apron and looked in and felt the cold water. On the bottom was a bed of mud and there were strings of green moss around the edges. She could see black tadpoles squirming away into the mud. She went back to the women.

Lorraine said, Well. Then she just proceeded to take her cloths off and laid them out on a chair. She was white as cream and full breasted with blue veins in her breasts with a swath of dark hair below her stomach to match the dark hair on her head. They looked at her. She raised her arms. Oh God, what a beautiful day. She stepped toward the tank in the hot manurey dirt and stepped up onto the concrete and leaned over and cupped her hands in the water, her bare back and legs shining in the sun, and doused her face and hair and her breasts and gasped, Oh God! Dear Lord! She lifted one foot onto the rim of the tank and brushed her foot off and stepped over into the water, her body halved, all of her full-fleshed body in the bright sun, and then lowered herself into the water and cried, Goddamn! Oh, Jesus! and lay out in the water and disappeared and came up all white and shining. Jesus! Jesus! Then she stood up and turned to them. Come on, all of you, get in.

This! The animal, the vegetable, the mineral, all is here, in new, provocative configurations and the same time old as women and heat and water. I believe in this stock tank– it is so minutely and lovingly described– and I want to believe in these women, each taking her first skinny dip and lightly blaspheming her God.

I will continue to read Haruf, and gladly, for the moments his fancy gets the better of his Iowa training. But while Haruf hides behind claims of universality, Holt, Kansas loses its post office, Holt, Nebraska’s water has started to smell funny, and Holt, Ohio is so crowded with refugees and immigrants who work at the meat packing plant that it’s hard to know which of the fifty languages you’re hearing, and Holt, Texas is choking on a new round of dust storms. Maybe it’s time to name some names.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (Review)

I’ve recently been looking for a way to break into the book review world. I believe it would be useful to keep a record of my reading and to feel as though I was participating in the larger literary discussion. When The Literary Bohemian said they were looking for reviewers I expressed interest and they invited me to send a sample review. However, they wanted something a little different. They wanted the writer to use the book as inspiration for a story, or to talk about the experience of reading the book, and not necessarily the book itself. I spent the morning working on a review that tried to do something like that with Down the Rabbit Hole only to decide that, for me, the book itself is more important than my reaction to it and this isn’t the sort of writing I personally want to be doing. So here’s my false attempt at this kind of review for a book a very highly recommend.

*

I read the dictionary as a kid. Did you? Tochtli reads the dictionary too. Let me introduce you. His name means ‘rabbit.’ That’s important, because the book he’s in is called Down the Rabbit Hole and it’s all about him. Tochtli lives with his father, Yolcaut, in a remote part of Mexico. He loves hats and has lots of different kinds, tri-corner, detective, safari, cowboy, and of course, sombrero. During the day he studies with his tutor and plays video games, at night he reads the dictionary. He likes samurais and hates pozole. He only knows thirteen or fourteen people. His birthday is coming up; he wants a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. He’s a lot like I was and maybe you too? He’s sensitive, obsessed with language, and eager to solve the mysteries of the adult world, except Tochtli is also the son of a Mexican drug lord known as “The King” and he’s very likely to get that pygmy hippopotamus.

Tochtli welds his vocabulary like a magnifying glass over a world containing corpse-eating tigers, mute servants, dismemberment, false passports, and, yes, Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses, in a process that clarifies yet distorts. Tochtli’s bad days aren’t bad, they’re devastating, or, more frequently, sordid. But the dictionary isn’t the only place he finds words. He gets plenty of motherfucker, faggot, and macho from his father.

The genius of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s slim, debut novel lies in its ability to create a world that is absolutely familiar and absolutely fantastical at once. Part Marquezian dictator, part Queen of Hearts, Yolcaut provides a wonderland for his son, but unlike Alice, who escapes and wakes from her dream, Tochtli’s strange world is real and inescapable. When the novel closes, and Tochtli disappears down his rabbit hole forever, the effect is, in a word, devastating.

Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic, and devastating. There aren’t really that many people who say I’m precocious. The problem is I don’t know that many people. I know maybe thirteen or fourteen people, and four of them say I’m precocious. They say I look older. Or the other way around: that I’m too little to know words like that. Or back-to-front and the other way around, sometimes people think I’m a dwarf. But I don’t think I’m precocious. What happens is I have a trick, like magicians who pull rabbits out of hats, except I pull words out of the dictionary. Every night before I go to sleep I read the dictionary. My memory, which is really good, practically devastating, does the rest. Yolcaut doesn’t think I’m precocious either. He says I’m a genius, he tells me:

“Tochtli, you’re a genius, you little bastard.”

And he strokes my head with his fingers covered in gold and diamond rings.

kittened

Language! I plays with it. This is a small piece of writing from my novel-in-progress Hunger the Giant. 

But the big man watched her not. He gazed upon the anthill. He sickled an acre in an hour. He kittened the bull that crippled Cookie. Kitty winced at his inattention; it bound her.

 

I know what I mean when I say “He kittened the bull that crippled Cookie,” but do you? The writer I’m working with didn’t get/like the phrase and I’m wondering if he’s right. Don’t be shy. 

be melting snow, wash yourself of yourself.

Yesterday, David and I had a brief discussion of home and inheritance. I’m currently in a low-grade kind of exile and David is living again in his home place and dealing with the Rage of doing so. But I have the Rage too, and here’s the reason I gave at the time: 

Perhaps because, as Kansans (though this is not limited to us) we’re denied the basic inheritance of being from somewhere, since our way of life there has erased itself from the time it started.

 I think we’re hard-wired to grow deeply and irrevocably attached to wherever we grow up. It teaches us everything. But we never learned the language in Kansas, the plants, the animals, the medicines, the rhythms. It has been treated instead as the enemy. And so we accomplish the bizarre dark miracle of being from nowhere. There of course natural geniuses in the Great Plains language, but I’m not one of them.

 

Today he shared an article suggesting home is only found through contemplation and meditation. This is a sane and healing suggestion, but while it can resolve personal questions, it leaves the earthly realm, the literal home, undefended.

And that is, I’ve realized, the source of my frustration, of the Rage. I am not naturally a homebody. In temperament and interests, I am a wanderer. I thrive on chaos. I’ve never had a single lasting habit. I am the wayward, the prodigal, the outsider.

But in order to fulfill this destiny, I must first have an actual place to leave, a way of life worth abandoning. For the children of the colonizers of Kansas, of whom I am one, that work has already been done. What I inherited was a generic culture of perpetual arrival and departure that makes a mockery of my natural calling.

So in order to give my travels their full force, I must first recreate a homeland worth leaving.

And so I study. I learn the names of the plants and the animals. I try to intuit beautiful and lasting solutions to universal human demands for food, shelter, and company based on the materials available in Kansas and then spin stories around these inventions. I dream of taking back the land from the pesticide people. Riding grasshopper gods over a broken interstate highway, following the smoke from adobe ovens, collecting eagle feathers and beadable rocks and sending all the barbed wire back to Chicago in one giant ball on the last train to ever run across the grasses.

But these ever-shifting homelands I dream of leaving, the porridge I dream of missing, the mulberry festivals that have never existed, will not arise in my lifetime. And so no matter where I go, I won’t be there, because you can never leave a place you never were.  

 

bus, truck, or tractor

Perhaps I am just several days tired. Perhaps it is the sunburn. But my progress has stalled. I have my ass hanging out in the intersection and I’m too listless to even try the ignition again. Let the truck come.

I wonder how many people keep ‘truck’ as a totem for death. Perhaps for city folk it is ‘bus.’ For me it’s ‘truck.’ When I wish for some kind of rural authenticity it’s ‘let the tractor roll over me.’ That’s how old farmers die in Kansas. After sixty or seventy years of keeping a tractor upright, they are found crushed under one. You have to wonder if they do it on purpose.

I visited the Gulf of Mexico last weekend with my family and in-laws, the island of Galveston specifically. Most tourist towns are shitty and Galveston is no exception. There is a lot of money pouring into the place, but not in a way that seems to benefit many people. We stayed at a fancy beach side resident hotel. Someone owns the beautiful three bedroom apartment where we stayed but rents it out most of the time.

I found Katie’s fish market and bought fish so fresh it looked like their eyes would ripple if you touched them.

When we returned to Bryan, Texas, where we live now, we found birthday presents from Dalyn in the Netherlands.

I’ve never seen a prairie chicken. I’m researching them for my novel about a Kansas giant. Like so many Kansas critters, they used to be everywhere, and now they are practically nowhere.

There’s a county in Western Kansas that is invading private ranches that have allowed prairie dogs to live and poisoning them, claiming it is compulsory to kill such pests.

A couple weeks ago coyote hunters killed the first wolf seen in Kansas since 1902. World-wide severe weather has inflated corn and soybean prices so that even more native grassland is being converted into unsustainable farmland.

It is perilous and demoralizing to become native to a place. Exile is certain. Books take root in disrupted soil.

This is just housekeeping. Sweep the dust out the door. Start the kettle when you’re done.