Monday, May 27, 2013

HHhH - Laurent Binet

It is difficult to put many things together in one book:  fiction, history, investigation and research, documentation and the process of writing, yet making it read as one wholesome work. Binet, cleverly tries to mix all these in his first novel, to some good effect, not flawlessly though. What he did well, was to rally around all that he was trying to do , within the central theme. Despite the various devices he deployed, the voice was always the same. A narrator, taking the readers through the pages of history, through his story telling as he is experiencing them. Thus, as a reader, you are part of the journey. Obsessed with the German Occupation of Prague and the death of the head of German Leader Heydrich, the narrator tries to get into the detail of the assassination and the unsung heroes of this episode.  However, around him he sees enough and more details in historical texts, in fiction as well as in the visual media ( documentaries and movies). Now, to write a book which surpasses all that was told earlier is a difficult task, hence he write about the process of writing the book. Thus, an amalgamation of all that was above, part fiction, part history part his own process of gathering evidences and documents and his own frustration and disappointments.

Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich ("Himmler's brain is called Heydrich"), was the talk among the Nazi members during the second World War.  One of the most feared figure, the head of SS, the right hand man of Himmler, a favourite of Hitler. Every key functions , the SS ( intelligence) and SD were under him. He had a say in most of the decision making of the Nazi regime and the notorious decision on the "final Solution to the Jews Question" is also linked to this person.  "The Butcher of Prague", "the Blonde Beast",  "the man with the iron heart" ( by Hitler), there are innumerable citation for this dreaded person. He was assigned to the post of the commander of the newly conquered land of "Moravia and Bohemia" ( The present day Czech Republic) and made sure that the opposition was suppressed with evil and cruel means. On the 27th May 1942, two soldiers trained by British, one Czech (Jan Kubiš) and the other Slovak (Jozef Gabčík), had attacked Heydrich in broad daylight after some meticulous planning ( under the code name Operation Anthropoid ) , in Prague street.. Haydrich, despite being injured bravely fought the attack,  succumbed to the injuries a week later in a hospital.

To get the basics in place, Binet starts with the early life of Haydrich. His childhood ( his spurious surname with a Jewish connection), his early days with Navy from where he was sacked, his entry into the world of SS, his fast growth in the regime ( gaining the  "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" honour). Binet, even describe the physical features of his character "“Heydrich is the perfect Nazi prototype: tall, blond, cruel, totally obedient and deadly efficient". The general background of the early days of the raise of the Germany, the acquisition of territories, the strategic geographical position of Czechoslovakia, the clever political maneuver by the SS think tank, to get Czech into submission, the nationalist government in exile trying to re-establish themselves through sabotage operations with the help of England ( mostly) ; you get an idea of what is happening during late thirties and early forties, in the form of historical texts, before he get back to the key theme of 'operation Andropoid'. The build up , the attack and the combing operation are read like a typical thriller, with necessary glorifying, as expected. The atrocities by the German authorities post the attack ( almost cleansed two villages for their apparent connection with the attackers), the traitor amongst them, the siege and the last hours all can be read like thriller.

The narration is not flawless. The free flow is often interrupted by the narrative intrusion. Despite the changes in the narrative techniques, it was a gripping read. The historical part , especially towards the end were the action was at its best was very moving. What makes this book different. probably, is the approach. There are enough and more books themed around second world war ( not necessarily with holocaust theme) and almost everything takes the often paved path. Binet, tries to take a different path, fresh and not mundane as the rest. In the bargain, it often drifts towards historical texts or to silly personal notes ( intended) , a bit off-putting at times.  He wonders towards the end that " "I think I'm beginning to understand. What I'm writing is an infranovel".

HHhH  (2010)

Laurent Binet ( translated from French by Sam Taylor in 2012)

Wintage Books

336 Pages
Wiki Entry, NY Times, Guardian, The Millions, New Yorker, Shigekuni


ghost said...

Oh wow. I pretty much had the opposite opinion. I was very uncharitable towards the book.

Jayan Parameswaran said...

I thought as much after reading your review.

This is not any great literary achievement, and very mediocre in that count. I'm used to reading WW2 books all in the same mould. This was a bit different from those usual books. Have you read jonathan Littell's book ? Would you recommend that ?