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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