HHhH, by Laurent Binet

HHhH is, on the surface, a historical novel. The story which it follows is the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia following the German invasion in WWII. This is a rather fascinating tale of the Czech and Slovak resistance during the Second World War, which is a part of European history I had not previously known much about.

This is not actually the plot of the novel, however, and this is the feature which makes HHhH so interesting. The book works out more as a constant interior narrative of the author, who is really the only character. It is divided up into really short chapters, and tends to alternate between what the author is thinking, and what he is writing. There is a really conversational tone to Binet’s writing which allows the difficulties the author is facing with his work become incredibly engaging.

HHhH stands for "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich" in German.

HHhH stands for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” in German.

The main problem in HHhH is that the author (I am not sure whether the author is supposed to be Binet – if it is, he is incredibly open about his writing in a way which seems incredibly brave) does not want to make the people he is writing about into characters, to offend their memory, or to mess up the truth of the story. On the other hand, he has felt compelled to write this novel, and his obsession with the story seems to force him to write it.

The main character might be Heydrich, but it's really hard to tell

The main character might be Heydrich, but it’s really hard to tell

This makes HHhH a rather bizarre reading experience; the author is so reluctant to assign characteristics to his characters which might be false that they have no personalities at all, and we read about them in the third person with little insight into their own thoughts or feelings – they are characters entirely of action. In fact, they are presented in the same way they might be presented in a popular history book, rather than in a novel. At the same time, we are bombarded with the thoughts, problems and personality of the author, who is facing a problem I have wrestled with from time to time – can a writer capture history without inventing any of it?

Personally, I think the answer is no, and HHhH shows it quite clearly. The author finds that there are too many gaps in the narrative which he would have to personally fill, and spends several chapters agonising over the question of what colour Heydrich’s mercedes was – he thinks black, but other writers have said it’s dark green. The way small details can seem so important is a really big problem in the novel.

This was a beautifully written work, and I would recommend it to anybody with an interest in history, historical fiction or writing in general. It will definitely teach you things you did not know before.

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