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HHhH: A Novel

HHhH: A Novel

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HHhH: A Novel

4/5 (39 valoraciones)
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Apr 24, 2012


HHhH: "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich", or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich". The most dangerous man in Hitler's cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the "Butcher of Prague." He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of History.

Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet's captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich's car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church.

A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet's remarkable imagination, HHhH—an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history.
HHhH is one of The New York Times' Notable Books of 2012.

Apr 24, 2012

Sobre el autor

Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. He is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. In March 2010, his debut novel, HHhH, won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Laurent Binet is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.

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HHhH - Laurent Binet



Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

So, Gabčík existed, and it was to this name that he answered (although not always). His story is as true as it is extraordinary. He and his comrades are, in my eyes, the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War. For a long time I have wanted to pay tribute to him. For a long time I have seen him, lying in his little room—shutters closed, window open—listening to the creak of the tram (going which way? I don’t know) that stops outside the Botanical Gardens. But if I put this image on paper, as I’m sneakily doing now, that won’t necessarily pay tribute to him. I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? I don’t want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.


I don’t remember exactly when my father first told me this story, but I can see him now, in my public-housing bedroom, pronouncing the words partisans, Czechoslovaks, perhaps operation, certainly assassinate, and then this date: 1942. I’d found History of the Gestapo by Jacques Delarue on his bookshelves, and started to read it. Seeing me with this book in my hands, my father had made some passing remarks: he’d mentioned Himmler, the leader of the SS, and then his right-hand man, Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. And he’d told me of a Czechoslovak commando sent by London, and an assassination attempt. He didn’t know the details—and I had no reason to ask for them at the time, as this historic event hadn’t yet taken hold of my imagination. But I had sensed in him that slight excitement he always gets when recounting something he finds striking. I don’t think he was really aware of the importance he gave this anecdote. When I told him recently of my intention to write a book on the subject, all I sensed was polite curiosity without a trace of any particular emotion. But I know that this story has always fascinated him, even if it never made as strong an impression on him as it did on me. So one of the reasons I am embarking on this book is to reciprocate his gift—those few words spoken to an adolescent boy by a father who, at the time, was not yet a history teacher. But who, in a few awkward phrases, knew how to tell it.

The story, I mean. History.


When I was still a child, well before the separation of the two countries, I already knew the difference between the Czechs and Slovaks. How? Because of tennis. For example, I knew that Ivan Lendl was Czech while Miroslav Mečíř was Slovak. And if Mečíř the Slovak was a flashier player, more talented and likable than the cold, workmanlike Czech Lendl (who was, all the same, the world number one for 270 weeks—a record he held until Pete Sampras topped him, holding the number one spot for 286 weeks), I had also learned from my father that, during the war, the Slovaks had collaborated while the Czechs had resisted. In my child’s mind, this meant that all Czechs had been resistance fighters and all Slovaks collaborators, as if by nature. Not for a second did I consider the case of France, which called into question such an oversimplification: hadn’t we, the French, both resisted and collaborated? Truth be told, it was only when I learned that Tito was a Croat—so not all Croats had been collaborators, and perhaps not all Serbs had been resistance fighters—that I began to have a clearer understanding of Czechoslovakia’s situation during the war. On one side, there was Bohemia and Moravia (in other words, the current Czech Republic), occupied by the Germans and annexed to the Reich—that is, having the unenviable status of protectorate, and considered part of Greater Germany. On the other side there was the Slovak state, theoretically independent but turned into a satellite by the Nazis. Obviously, this does not presuppose anything about any individual person’s behavior.


On arriving in Bratislava in 1996, before going to work as a French teacher in a Slovakian military academy, one of the first things I asked the secretary to the military attaché at the embassy (after asking for news of my luggage, which had gone missing near Istanbul) concerned the story of the assassination. I learned the first details of the affair from this man: a warrant officer who had specialized in phone-tapping in Czechoslovakia and, since the end of the Cold War, had been redeployed as a diplomat. First of all, there were two men involved in the attack: a Czech and a Slovak. I was pleased to find out that a representative of my host country had taken part in the operation—and that there really had been Slovak resistance fighters. I didn’t learn much about the operation itself, except that one of the guns had jammed when they shot at Heydrich’s car (and I discovered simultaneously that Hedyrich was in a car at that moment). But it was above all what happened afterward that piqued my curiosity: how the two partisans had taken refuge with their friends in a church, and how the Germans had tried to drown them … A strange story. I wanted details. But the warrant officer didn’t know much more.


A little while after arriving in Slovakia, I met a very beautiful young Slovak woman with whom I fell madly in love and went on to have a passionate affair that lasted nearly five years. It was through her that I managed to obtain further information. Firstly, the protagonists’ names: Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. Gabčík was the Slovak, and Kubiš the Czech—apparently you can tell their nationality from their surnames. These two men have become part of the historical landscape: Aurélia, the young woman in question, had learned their names at school, like all the little Czechs and Slovaks of her generation. She knew the broad outline of the story, but not much more than my warrant officer. I had to wait two or three years before I knew for sure what I had always suspected—that this story was more fantastic and intense than the most improbable fiction. And I discovered that almost by chance.

I had rented an apartment for Aurélia in the center of Prague, between the castle of Vyšehrad and Karlovo náměstí (Charles Square). From this square runs a street, Resslova ulice, that goes down to the river, where you will find that strange glass building which seems to undulate in the air and which the Czechs call Tančící dům: the dancing house. On Resslova Street—on the right-hand side as you go down—there is a church. And in the church’s wall is a basement window bordered by stone where you can see numerous bullet marks and a plaque mentioning Gabčík and Kubiš—and Heydrich, whose name is now forever linked with theirs. I had passed this basement window dozens of times without noticing either the bullet marks or the plaque. But one day I stopped and read the words—and realized I had found the church where the parachutists took refuge after the assassination attempt.

I came back with Aurélia at a time when the church was open, and we were able to visit the crypt.

In the crypt, there was everything.


There were still fresh traces of the drama that had occurred in this room more than sixty years before: a tunnel dug several yards deep; bullet marks in the walls and the vaulted ceiling. There were also photographs of the parachutists’ faces, with a text written in Czech and in English. There was a traitor’s name and a raincoat. There was a poster of a bag and a bicycle. There was a Sten submachine gun (which jammed at the worst possible moment). All of this was actually in the room. But there was something else here, conjured by the story I read, that existed only in spirit. There were women, there were careless acts, there was London, there was France, there were legionnaires, there was a government in exile, there was a village by the name of Lidice, there was a young lookout called Valčík, there was a tram which went by (also at the worst possible moment), there was a death mask, there was a reward of ten million crowns for whoever denounced the gunmen, there were cyanide pills, there were grenades and people to throw them, there were radio transmitters and coded messages, there was a sprained ankle, there was penicillin that could be procured only in England, there was an entire city under the thumb of the man they nicknamed the Hangman, there were swastika flags and death’s-head insignias, there were German spies who worked for Britain, there was a black Mercedes with a blown tire, there was a chauffeur and a butcher, there were dignitaries gathered around a coffin, there were policemen bent over corpses, there were terrible reprisals, there was greatness and madness, weakness and betrayal, courage and fear, hope and grief, there were all the human passions brought together in a few square yards, there was war and there was death, there were Jews deported, families massacred, soldiers sacrificed, there was vengeance and political calculation, there was a man who was (among other things) an accomplished fencer and violinist, there was a locksmith who never managed to do his job, there was the spirit of the Resistance engraved forever in these walls, there were traces of the struggle between the forces of life and the forces of death, there was Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, there was all the history of the world contained in a few stones.

There were seven hundred SS guards outside.


On the Internet, I discovered the existence of a telefilm, Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich. I eagerly ordered the DVD—only five euros, postage and handling included—and it arrived three days later.

Conspiracy is a historical reconstruction of the Wannsee Conference, where, on January 20, 1942, in only a few hours, Heydrich and his assistant Eichmann set down the methods of enforcing the Final Solution. By this time, mass executions had already begun in Poland and the USSR but they had been entrusted to the SS extermination commandos, the Einsatzgruppen, who simply rounded up their victims by the hundreds, sometimes by the thousands, often in a field or a forest, before killing them with submachine guns. The problem with this method was that it tested the executioners’ nerves and harmed the troops’ morale, even those as hardened as the SD or the Gestapo. Himmler himself fainted while attending one of these mass executions. Subsequently, the SS had taken to asphyxiating their victims by cramming them inside trucks and hooking up the exhaust pipe to a length of hose, but the technique remained relatively unsophisticated. After Wannsee, the extermination of the Jews—which Heydrich entrusted to the tender care of his faithful Eichmann—was administered as a logistical, social, and economic project on a very large scale.

Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Heydrich is quite clever: he manages to combine great affability with brusque authoritarianism, which makes his character highly disturbing. I don’t know how accurate it is—I have not read anywhere that the real Heydrich knew how to show kindness, whether real or faked. But one short scene does a good job of showing his true psychological and historical nature. Two men at the conference are having a private discussion. One confides to the other that he’s heard Heydrich has Jewish origins and asks if he thinks there might be any truth to this. The second man replies venomously: Why not go and ask him yourself? His questioner goes pale at the thought. Now, it turns out that a persistent rumor claiming his father was Jewish did in fact pursue Heydrich for many years and that his youth was poisoned by this. Apparently the rumor was unfounded. But let’s be honest, even if that wasn’t the case, Heydrich—as head of the secret services of the Nazi Party and the SS—would have been able to erase all suspect traces in his genealogy without the slightest effort.

This is not the first time that Heydrich has made it to the big screen: in 1943, less than a year after the assassination, Fritz Lang shot a propaganda film entitled Hangmen Also Die! with a screenplay by Bertolt Brecht. This film recounts the events in a way that is utterly fanciful—Lang didn’t know what had really happened, and even if he had he naturally wouldn’t have wished to risk revealing the truth—but quite ingenious: Heydrich is assassinated by a Czech doctor, a member of the Resistance who takes refuge in the house of a young girl. Then the girl’s father, an academic, is rounded up by the Germans along with other local worthies and threatened with execution if the assassin doesn’t give himself up. The crisis, treated in an extremely dramatic way (thanks to Brecht, presumably), is resolved when the Resistance manages to pin the blame on a traitorous collaborator, whose death ends both the affair and the film. In reality, neither the partisans nor the Czech people got off so lightly.

Fritz Lang chose to represent Heydrich rather crudely as an effeminate pervert, a complete degenerate who carries a riding crop to underline both his ferocity and his depraved morals. It’s true that the real Heydrich was supposed to be a sexual pervert and that he spoke in a falsetto voice at odds with the rest of his persona, but his stiffness, his haughtiness, his absolutely Aryan profile, were worlds away from the mincing creature in the film. If you wanted to find a more lifelike screen representation, you should watch Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator again: there you see Hinkel, the dictator, flanked by two henchmen, one of them a smug, bloated fat man clearly modeled on Göring, and the other a tall, thin man who looks much colder, stiffer, and more cunning. That isn’t Himmler, a coarse little moustached fox, but rather Heydrich, his very dangerous right-hand man.


For the hundredth time, I returned to Prague. Accompanied by another young woman, the gorgeous Natacha, I went back to the crypt. (She’s French, this one, in spite of her name, and the daughter of Communists, like all of us.) The first day we went, it was closed for a national holiday, but across the road I spotted a bar—I’d never noticed this place before—called the Parachutists. Inside, the walls were covered with photos, documents, paintings, and posters relating to the assassination. At the back, a large painted mural depicted Great Britain, with points indicating the various military bases where the exiled Czech army commandos prepared for their missions. I drank a beer there with Natacha.

The next day, we returned during opening hours and I showed Natacha the crypt. She took several photos at my request. A short film reconstructing the assassination was playing in the foyer. I tried to pinpoint the places where the drama took place in order to go there myself, but it was quite far from the center of town, out in the suburbs. The street names have changed: even now I have trouble situating the exact location of the attack. On my way out of the crypt, I picked up a flyer, written in Czech and English, advertising an exhibition entitled Assassination. Beside the title was a photo of Heydrich surrounded by German officers and flanked by his local right-hand man, the Sudeten German Karl Hermann Frank—all of them wearing full uniform and climbing a wood-paneled staircase. A red target had been printed on Heydrich’s face. The exhibition was taking place at the Army Museum, not far from the Florenc metro station, but there was no mention of dates, only the museum’s opening hours. We went there the same day.

At the museum entrance, a little old lady welcomed us with great solicitude: she seemed happy to see some visitors and invited us to take a tour of the building’s various galleries. But I was interested in only one of them. The entrance was decorated by an enormous pasteboard announcing, in the style of a Hollywood horror film, the exhibition on Heydrich. I wondered if it was permanent. It was free, in any case, like the rest of the museum. The little lady, having asked us where we were from, gave us a guidebook in English (she was sorry to be able to offer a choice of only English or German).

The exhibition surpassed all my expectations. Here, there really was everything: as well as photos, letters, posters, and various documents, I saw the parachutists’ guns and personal effects, their dossiers filled out by the British commanders, with notes, appraisals, and reports. I saw Heydrich’s Mercedes, with its blown tire and the hole in the right rear door, and the fatal letter from the lover to his mistress that led to the massacre at Lidice. I saw their passports and their photos, and a great number of other authentic, deeply moving traces of what happened. I took notes feverishly, knowing full well that there were way too many names, dates, details. As I was leaving, I asked the lady if it was possible to buy the guidebook that she’d lent me, in which all the captions and commentaries had been transcribed. Sounding very sorry, she said no. The book was handbound and clearly not intended for general sale. Seeing that I was at a loss, and probably touched by my jabbering attempts to speak Czech, she ended up taking the book from my hands and stuffing it determinedly into Natacha’s handbag. She signaled us not to say a word, and to leave. We parted effusively. It’s true that given the number of visitors to the museum, the guidebook was unlikely to be missed by anyone. But even so, it was really kind. Two days later, an hour before our bus left for Paris, I went back to the museum to give the little lady some chocolates. She was embarrassed and didn’t want to accept them. The guidebook she gave me is so important that without it—and therefore without her—this book probably wouldn’t exist in the form it’s going to take. I regret not having dared ask her name, so that I could have thanked her a bit more ceremoniously.


When she was sixteen or seventeen, Natacha took part two years running in a national essay-writing contest about the Resistance, and both times she finished first—a feat that as far as I know has never been matched, before or since. This double victory gave her the opportunity to be a standard-bearer in a commemorative parade and to visit a concentration camp in Alsace. During the bus journey she sat next to an old Resistance fighter who took a liking to her. He lent her some books and documents, but afterward they lost touch. Ten years later, when she told me this story—somewhat guiltily as you’d imagine, seeing that she still had his documents and that she didn’t even know if he was alive—I encouraged her to contact him again. And even though he’d moved to the other end of France, I managed to track him down.

That’s how we came to visit him in his beautiful white house near Perpignan, where he lived with his wife.

Sipping sweet muscat wine, we listened as he told us how he had joined the Resistance, how he’d gone underground, all the things he’d done. In 1943, aged nineteen, he was working at his uncle’s dairy farm. Being of Swiss origin, this uncle spoke such good German that the soldiers who came to get fresh supplies had taken to hanging around in order to chat with someone who spoke their language. First of all, our young Resistance fighter was asked if he could glean any interesting information from the talks between the soldiers and his uncle, about troop movements, for example. Then they put him on parachute duty, where he helped to pick up the boxes of materials parachuted down at night from Allied airplanes. When he became old enough to be drafted by the STO—which meant he was under threat of being sent to work in Germany—he went underground, serving in combat units and taking part in the liberation of Burgundy. Actively, it would seem, judging by the number of Germans he claims to have killed.

I was genuinely interested in his story, but I also hoped to learn something that could be useful for my book on Heydrich. What exactly, I had no idea.

I asked him if he’d received any military instruction after going underground. None, he told me. Later, they taught him how to handle a heavy machine gun, and he had a few training sessions: dismantling and reassembling the gun blindfolded, and shooting practice. But when he first arrived, they stuck a machine gun in his hands and that was it. It was a British machine gun, a Sten. A completely unreliable weapon, so he told me: all you had to do was hit the ground with the butt and it went off. A piece of junk. The Sten was shit, there’s no other way of saying it.

You might wish to remember this. It turns out to be important.


I said before that one of the characters in Chaplin’s Great Dictator was based on Heydrich, but it’s not true. Let’s ignore the fact that in 1940 Heydrich was a shadowy figure, largely unknown to the majority of people—Americans most of all. That is obviously not the problem: Chaplin could have guessed at his existence, and somehow got it exactly right. But while it’s true that the dictator’s henchman in the film is depicted as a snake—whose intelligence contrasts with the ridiculousness of the actor parodying big fat Göring—he is equally a caricature of buffoonery and spinelessness. And in those characteristics we cannot recognize the future Hangman of Prague at all.

On the subject of screen portrayals of Heydrich, I’ve just seen an old film on TV entitled Hitler’s Madman. It’s directed by Douglas Sirk, who was of Czech origin, and it’s an American propaganda film, shot in a single week and released in 1943, just before Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! The story, which is (like Lang’s) utterly fanciful, places the heart of the Resistance in Lidice, the village of martyrs that would end up like Oradour.* The film is about a parachutist flown in from London and the dilemma of the villagers who find him. Are they going to help him or keep away from him—or even betray him? The problem with the film is that it reduces the organization of the attack to a local scheme, based on a series of coincidences (Heydrich happens to be passing through Lidice, which happens to be sheltering a parachutist, who in turn happens to find out what time the Protector’s car will go past). The plot is therefore much weaker than that of Lang’s film, where, with Brecht writing the screenplay, the dramatic power of this one event is used to create a genuine national epic.

On the other hand, the actor who plays Heydrich in the Douglas Sirk film is excellent. For a start, there is a physical resemblance. But he also manages to convey the character’s brutality without overdoing the facial tics—whereas Lang sacrificed subtlety in order to emphasize Heydrich’s degenerate soul. Now, it’s true that Heydrich was an evil, pitiless swine, but he wasn’t Richard III. The actor in Sirk’s film is John Carradine, the father of David Carradine, alias Bill in the Tarantino films. The most successful scene is that of Heydrich on his deathbed: eaten away by fever, he delivers a cynical speech to Himmler that is not without a kind of Shakespearean resonance, but which seems at the same time quite plausible. Neither cowardly nor heroic, the Hangman of Prague passes away without repentance, without fanaticism, regretting only that he must leave a life to which he felt attached—his

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  • (5/5)
    What is the obsession with Reinhard Heydrich? I suppose it must be that Himmler’s right hand man in the SS was the highest ranking Nazi to be assassinated during WWII. An architect of the Holocaust, force behind the Einsatzgruppen paramilitary death squads, and Deputy Reich Protector of the largely Czech Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Arguably the intended successor to Adolf Hitler. WWII alternate history aficionados ever since find it convenient to thwart his assassination, establishing for him a prominent role in a new timeline. Witness Amazon’s production of The Man in the High Castle or Robert Harris’ Fatherland for two recent examples.This book is hard to characterize, and in the hands of a lesser author, would have been a mess. It is part biography of Heydrich, part thriller as we follow the heroes Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš as they parachute toward destiny and near-certain death in Nazi-controlled Prague. But in Binet’s hands, HHhH (acronym from the German meaning “Himmler's brain is called Heydrich”), is also meta-historical meditation on writing history, personal memoir of Binet himself, travelogue as the author researches his book: in other words, this book has a unique structure and an idiosyncratic plan, and I am happy to say that he pulls it off gloriously.
  • (3/5)
    Jean Echenoz's novel Lightning rested close to my mind's eye as I crept through HHhH. Much as Echenoz created an almost strophic life of Tesla which still hummed like one of the Serb's coils, Binet addresses the assassination of Heydrich in Prague during the Second World War. Binet begins his account with a constant rapping of the fourth wall and an incessant imploring of his disgust with description in novels, apparently Binet also loathes historical fiction; why shove dramatic words into real people, he muses? No, the author coy follows such discipline and then lapses poetic: what follows is Binet revealing, retreating, reframing.

    It is difficult to explain, but many books serve as platforms to settle scores. This is one of them. Early in the book The Kindly Ones is taken to ask for its gory glorification and the installation of a 21st Century nihilist perspective into the SS. Unexpectedly, Binet finds the voice of History itslf in Bill Vollmann's Europe Central.

    Still, for someone so righteous about facts, i find it odd that he mentions the postwar life of Simone Weil, as well as the fact she survived Aushwitz. Maybe there are other Simone Weils?
  • (4/5)
    A metafictional historical thriller set around the true story of the killing of Reinhard Heydrich, a particularly evil high ranking Nazi. Simultaneously telling the story in as factually an accurate way as possible, the author also comments on the nature of trying to write about true events, and comments on the role of memory in both fiction and life. This is a daring conceit, and while it does not work all the time, the author supports his thesis enough to make the book an interesting and thought provoking read.
  • (2/5)
    All the self conscious ruminations on history and novel writing seem chatty rather than deep. The book adds nothing to my fairly slight knowledge of the holocaust. There were all bad guys and all good guys and they fought. The bad guys were extremely bad the good guys were extremely brave. The book was listenable especially at the end when he actually told the story. Maybe it was beautifully written and i miss that in the translation.
  • (5/5)
    Is it insulting to turn a real person into a character in a book?The nature of historical fiction and the inherant untrustworthyness of it is foregrounded in HHhH the new novel by Laurent Binet. Mr. Binet wants to tell the story of two men, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, who carried out an assassination attempt on the life of Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the Nazi SS under Himmler and possibly the heir-apparent to Adolph Hitler. Mr. Binet's attempt to tell the story of Kubis and Gabcik is undermined by Heydrich, whose crimes slowly takes over the narrative and by Mr. Binet's own lack of faith in the genre of historical fiction. Why write a novel instead of a history? Why create a fiction instead of telling the truth?As the story of Heydrich's rise to power enters an almost pre-destined collision with the story of his assassins, Mr. Binet's own story, that of writing the novel we are reading attempts to takes center stage. Throughout the novel, Mr. Binet discusses the problems, both moral and literary, with writing historical fiction in general and specifically with writing about Reinhard Heydrich and the attempt on his life. It's clear that Mr. Binet admires the bravery of Kubis and Gabcik and that he is both appalled and fascinated by Heydrich. He wants to make Heydrich a monster and he wants to keep the assassins alive as long as possible. They know that they are on a suicide mission, that there can be no escape after the attempt on Heydrich's life whether it succeeds or fails, but Mr. Binet can't stand the thought of letting them die. As the novel heads towards its inevitable conclusion, he constantly stalls the plot by interjecting discussion about his second theme how to write historical fiction-- whether or not he can insert details that he knows are false or isn't sure are true or if he can invent a character or two. This is what I think: inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom I've discussed all this: It's like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.Mr. Binet agonizes over his inability to include all of the people who helped with the attempt on Heydrich's life due to the confines of his narrative. Were he to include everyone who deserves to be mentioned, his book would become unreadably dense. Through these diversions and asides the author/narrator becomes a character in the book. I began to feel that I was reading the book as it was being written, that Mr. Binet and I were in the same room composing the book's narrative, discussing which scenes and details should be included as we simultaneously wrote and read the book. At one point he falls to the temptation of including a scene he has made up, but he immediately confesses that he has done so:That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet--a man who's been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him put on two casts, when perhaps he had only one. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself. None of the actions Mr. Binet mentions above mean much on their own, but they call into question the entire nature of historical fiction. If a series of small details has been invented in order to turn a historical figure into a fully fleshed out literary character, is that character still a historical figure, still Reinhard Heydrich the Nazi mastermind of the Final Solution or has he become simply another literary villian, another Inspector Javert? Of course we also have to ask at what point do the small details step over the line and become simply fiction outright. Alternatively, is Mr. Binet simply having me on. Is he making fun of people who criticize historical fiction for objecting to things that do not really matter? Is his critique of historical fiction or of historical fiction's critics?By the closing of the novel, Mr. Binet appears desperate to keep his heros alive. Although the assassination attempt goes wrong, the two young men manage to escape and go into hiding. The manhunt that follows can only end with their eventual discovery and death, which we both, the novelist and his reader, know. But we both want to keep Kubiš and Gabčík alive as long as possible. Attempting to delay the end of the story, and thereby expand the lives of his characters, the author dates each paragraph, putting one day between each, stretching the hero's final eight hours into well over a week of time, but the dates are 2008, when the author was writing not when the heros were living. What does this mean? Did the author write just one paragraph per day because he could not bring himself to write the final one? Is he attempting to prolong their lives through narrative? Can art prolong life? If the author is committed to his preference for truth over invented detail then he cannot prolong the lives of the people in his book, but if he takes the steps needed to make them into characters instead of people can he give them any ending he likes: prolong their lives, let them escape, grant them happiness?In HHhH, Mr. Binet managed to find a story about the Third Reich that many readers will be unfamiliar with. I knew nothing about Reinhard Heydrich nor the attempt on his life before reading this novel. This made HHhH work for me on the level of a straightforward thriller. What I did not expect to find was so much about the nature of literature and its relationship to historical reality. HHhH is a book about World War II and a book about writing books about World War II. I never would have guessed that the reading about writing a book could be just as exciting as reading about the war itself.
  • (4/5)
    If this were just a historical fiction novel, it wouldn't be a very good one - most of the characters are only a little developed, so they remain murky and faceless. The storyline is full of stops and starts and tangents. The pacing is determined not so much by the chain of events as by the author's sense of when things should happen. Important scenes and details are left out, trivial details are agonized over at length.However, what makes this lackluster historical fiction novel a delightful read is the constant intrusion of the author. He doesn't develop his characters because he wants to remain true to history - he doesn't want to dishonor their memories by making up false details or false dialog. The author is plagued by his desire to only tell the truth, and to tell every bit of relevant truth he can discover. He will write whole scenes hypothetically, or write a scene and then invalidate it in the next chapter by saying it didn't really happen and he can't really tell the story that way. When the climactic scene finally arrives, what he writes about isn't so much the events of the scene itself, but his own excitement and trepidation as he imagines the scene.The major weakness to this approach is that he never discusses the nature of truth, at least not overtly. He hates to put in any fact that he can't verify from sources, yet he never questions his sources, nor does he explore the fundamental question of how we know what we know, and the relationship of verifiable facts to the greater human truth revealed by these events. He also never discusses why, if he is so concerned about only relating true facts, he is writing a novel instead of a work of history.I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and thinking about the historical fiction author's responsibilities to his material.
  • (5/5)
    A remarkable approach to telling this bit of history! Laurent Binet's narrator expresses many of the anxieties and questions that many of us have reading and studying the history--the history of remarkable evil--of the Nazi era. Folding that into a meta-narrative about the life and death of Reinhard Heydrich is fascinating, and the ending is absolutely riveting.
  • (4/5)
    If you’ve ever pondered the seeming oxymoron ‘the non-fiction novel’, HHhH will illustrate the concept more clearly than any description ever could. It’s post modern but don’t let that put you off because despite the subject of the book po-mo is transformed into something light and playful in this excellent debut novel. The titular HHhH is Reinhard Heydrich, Butcher of Prague and 2iC to Himmler, although he was regarded as the more dangerous of the two: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich [Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich] the Nazi tag went, and Binet is unsparing in his descriptions of the so-called Blonde Beast’s cruelty. On the one hand, this is a meticulously researched account of Heydrich’s life, and of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the two parachutists who assassinated him. Sent from England by the Czech government in exile, the two resistance fighters ambushed Himmler’s open-topped Mercedes when it slowed to navigate a bend in the streets of Prague. The gun jammed but they tossed a grenade: Heydrich died of septicemia a week later while the two assassins were hidden in a church and, when discovered, fought to the death. In reprisal, the Nazi’s burned the village of Lidice to the ground and those inhabitants who were not shot, were sent to the death camps.Fascinating as the narrative is, what makes the book compelling is the authorial voice as the reader is privy to the unnamed narrator’s anguished inner debate and internal arguments over the question of invented dialogue or an imagined portrayal of what real-life characters were thinking or feeling.With a religious respect for reality, the narrator rejects imagined scenes absolutely, deciding invention has no place in historical fiction, not even the insertion of an invented character into the action. But while the history is faction, the authorial comment is enticingly entertaining and, one suspects, leavened with a hearty scoop of pure fiction. HHhH is an utter delight.
  • (4/5)
    This is an intriguing book, falling somewhere between novel, biography and historical text book. Essentially it tells of the attempt by two Czech agents, who had been trained in espionage techniques in London, to assassinate leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. Laurent Binet painstakingly prepares his ground, taking us through Heydrich's life story set in the context of the rise of Hitler's Nazis from obscure, marginalised extremists to unassailable government, with some fascinating lessons in espionage technique thrown in along the way.The bizarre title is actually an acronym that became popular in Germany during the late 1930s and early 1940s, standing for "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" (meaning "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich", a public acknowledgement that Heydrich was the brain behind much of the success ascribed to Himmler). The unconventionality doesn't stop with the title - the book has no page numbers which I found oddly disconcerting, though I can't explain why that should be so.However, the story is told very well, and the reader's attention is engaged and then retained right from the start, despite much of the content dealing with ghastly details about the Final Solution.Overall this is a very impressive debut.
  • (5/5)
    Brilliant, brilliant book - a 'non-fiction novel' about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague. Haven't read anything this good in a long time - a completely different approach to writing historical fiction which I loved - what the author tells you happened, definitely happened - unless it didn't (and then he tells you that too!).
  • (5/5)
    An incredibly clever, fascinating, completely gripping metafictional historical novel about Reinhard Heydrich, architect of Hitler's Final Solution, and his assassination in Prague. Brilliant!
  • (3/5)
    Meta-historical 'novel', 'infranovel', facts or fiction? Binet injects his struggle with historical accuracy into the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the butcher of Prague, by Czech paratroopers in 1942.
    The writing is sharp, the story is fast paced, detailed and filled with tension. It's a wonder, therefore, that Binet felt the need to inject himself so completely into it.
    Binet's storytelling is crisp, and he builds the suspense nicely as the story reaches climax on the day that two protagonists await their quarry. Heydrich, in his hubris, commutes daily through occupied territory that he has subdued by mass murder, terror and enslavement, in an open car. His doom awaits at the hands of partisans, trained in England, dropped into their own country to be aided by the locals. We meet all of the major players on both sides as they move toward the inevitable collision on May 28th 1942.
    The story's narrator, however, is unreliable, as he mixes, in short bursts, his own doubts about the facts he is relating, into the text.
    He obsesses about the color of Heydrich's car; about the details of dialogue and whether he can trust his sources as he struggles to add details to the story he is telling.
    I found the style and the meta-context to be utterly distracting to an otherwise well told tale. The ultra short chapters were an annoyance as well. As history HHhH was great, as a novel, not so much, thus 3 stars only.
  • (3/5)
    The title of this novel stands for the phrase Himmler Hirn heißt Heydrich or “Himmler’s brain is named Heydrich” and it tells the story of the rise of Reinhard Heydrich and the assassination plot that brought him down in Prague in 1942. The incredible true story of Operation Anthropoid is interwoven with the author acting as narrator and recounting how he researched and wrote the book. It is a bizarre combination of story telling and the writer’s perspective on telling the story, so if you don’t enjoy meta commentary this might not be for you. While it could be pretentious at times, I found both sides of the novel fascinating. HHhH won the Prix Goncourt for best debut novel, which is how it got on my radar (as I’m trying to read French novels regularly this year).
  • (3/5)
    Euro-version of William Vollmann. This book would have been great if it hadn't lost so much steam at the end. The metafictional conceit of Binet not knowing how and/or wanting to write the end didn't help much. Also, if the part about the title is true, he should have fought his editor and kept the original. The snob factor on John Lee's accent was luscious.
  • (5/5)
    HHhH may be one of the most intriguing novels I have read in recent memory. Translated from French, its title is based on a German sentence: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”. It is the story of the 1942 attack in Prague on Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most dangerous men in the Hitler's inner circle, if not in all of Nazi Germany, and one of the main architects of the "Final Solution," the Holocaust. Known variously as "the Butcher of Prague" by those who feared him and "the man with the iron heart" by Hitler, Heydrich was a dangerous, evil man.

    But Binet's novel, cleverly if awkwardly named, is something more, and something different. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to say that the novel is as much about Binet's obsession with the attack, the Czech and Slovak heroes Jozef Gabćik and Jan Kubiš who carried it out, and its central villain, Heydrich himself. I have heard the writing of a novel described as requiring a certain level of insanity and obsession, and Binet demonstrates a level of intense scrutiny that could match this description.

    Almost pageant like, his unconventional style puts him in the middle of the book, a narrator that at times reminded me of the Chorus in the Prologue of Shakespeare's Henry V, eager to be both in the scene and to describe it. Indeed, we move with him as he tells the story, quibbling over what details to include, what to exclude, how to tell the scene, and what were the characters really thinking. For, after all, the characters lived, were real, and the events described happened.

    Strange and unconventional, but oddly gripping and thrilling, even as it ends tragic and triumphant. For the end of the story is not a secret--you can find the facts of the tale on Wikipedia. But the imagination with which Binet approaches his subject, the path his obsession takes, is worth hearing it told in his voice. "O for a Muse of fire[...]"
  • (4/5)
    Good read, but not really a novel, more one man's research of the Heydrich assasination, what happened and what he felt during his research and writing. Funny that he fails to mention the film Operation Daybreak (based on the book which he does mention), perhaps it wasn't available in France.
  • (5/5)
    An account of the assassination attempt on Heydrich (I didn't know how it went, so was in suspense), with frequent amusing discussion of what it means to write an "historical" novel. The author agonises about the presumption of fleshing out scenes to tell a good story, when nobody knows exactly what happened. This tension between the tale and the telling is a clever dance which never falters.
  • (4/5)
    I am always extremely cautious when it comes to reading historical fiction, especially when it comes to an area that I have studied and know a lot about. Luckily that's not the case with this book. Not only did I not know much about Heydrich, WW2 era Czechoslovakia, or the plot described in this novel... I had never heard of it. All of the stories told were amazing. These heroes were courageous and inspiring and you hate that things end like they did.
  • (2/5)
    I sought this out because I'd heard it was supposed to be a historical novel that critiques the idea of historical novels, which sounded fascinating to me. But in actuality, it's not really a novel at all, by even my extremely broad definition of the term. And it's not a serious history book, certainly, since there's no bibliography. And it fails perhaps worst of all as any kind of critique, despite the metafictional flourishes. If it succeeds at all, it's as pop-history, written in the same tone as those silly, lurid, crowd-pleasing Hitler documentaries on the History channel.
  • (5/5)
    Binet brings the true story of the assassination of Heydrich, Himmler & Hitler's henchman & the author of the final solution, to life in this 'novel' . Mixing factual account with commentary on the events & writing a novel, Binet kept me on the edge of my seat; his narration of the horrors & atrocities of the Nazis & the brave people who resisted fascism was powerfully told & gripping.
  • (5/5)
    This is the true story surrounding the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (the most dangerous man in the Third Reich). The title HHhH comes from "Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich" (Himmler's brain is called Heydrich). The assassination was carried out by two Czech resistance fighters who parachuted back into their homeland according to a plan by the Czech government in exile and Great Britain. The never-stretching story of these two heroes in punctuated by the author's own musings about what he has written, his research, and his intense desire to do justice to these men in the telling, and to not fictionalize them or their actions. Although an unusual way of telling the story, I found the author's method to be even more thought-provoking, and it even seemed to intensify the suspense for me. It was like sitting in on a history class by a professor who clearly loves his subject and who is able to effectively share that passion with his students.
  • (5/5)
    Establishing a new genre, the infranovel (his own term), Laurent Binet gives a very moving and often harrowing account of Jozef Gabĉík and Jan Kubiŝ's escape from the Nazis, their training in Britain, and their careful preparations to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the highest-ranking Nazis in the Third Reich, which so very nearly failed. Binet describes his research process and his attempts to put historical facts to paper without reducing the characters to mere names in a historical novel; the result is a curious and very personal mixture of snippets of fictionalised action and non-fiction, but it works, because Binet immerses himself head to toe in the work, and the enthusiasm for his subject and the admiration for the Czechoslovak Resistance fighters is obvious and infectious. This book should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the Second World War.
  • (5/5)
    Original. Creative. Surprising. Not words that I normally use to describe WWII literature. But Laurent Binet's novel is all of these. Ostensibly about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the subsequent reprisals taken against the perpetrators and the Czech population, the novel is also an exploration of what it means to be obsessed with World War II and how our obsessions and experiences influence how we write about the past and thereby change how others in turn perceive it.Reinhard Heydrich was Himmler's right hand man in the SS, thus coining the phrase "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (HHhH)", which translates to "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich". After the annexation of the Sudetenland and breaking off of Slovakia, the Nazi's decided that they needed a strong hand in the Czech and Bohemian Protectorate in order to maintain order and, more importantly, keep the industrialized Czech factories producing at top speed for the German army. Heydrich is sent to squelch any possible disruption caused by native Czech resistance, which he does with swift and horrifying brutality. The Czech government in exile decides to send a pair of operatives (one Czech and one Slovak) to assassinate Heydrich. Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš parachute into the Protectorate and eventually succeed in fatally wounding Heydrich, provoking one of the greatest manhunts by the SS. In the meantime, a small village with a tenuous link to one of the assassins is completely destroyed in retaliation. If the book were simply about the assassination and the fate of the two parachutists, it would be interesting, but hardly original. Although the story is not extremely well-known, it is part of the lore of WWII. But Binet does something different. He uses the character of the author (how closely this character resembles himself, the reader is let to surmise) to talk about the process of writing the novel, thus creating a work that is self-aware and reflective. In first person conversation with the reader, the character/author describes his obsession with World War II and Czechoslovakia, his visits to Prague to pay homage to sites important to the story, his research, and how this passion effects his relationships. He constantly interrupts the narrative to interject his own feelings, questions about whether he is digressing, and how a newly discovered piece of information changes his perspective. I found myself cheering when he finds a book that he has needed in his research, wondering along with him whether Heydrich's car really was black, and commiserating when he can find no further data on a particular line of inquiry. One is tempted to forget that this is historical fiction and believe it a memoir. But instead it is a very clever piece of metafiction. Lest you think this all rather boring and dry, let me assure you that it is funny and an absolute page turner. Each chapter is only a few paragraphs long, and they fly by. His description of the seven resistance fighters trapped in the crypt of a church surrounded by over 700 SS soldiers is absolutely spellbinding. I have never read such a creative narrative of accurate history. Fabulous and highly recommended.
  • (5/5)
    Awkward title aside, this was fairly brilliant. Binet is a French author, and in his own words HHhH is an infranovel. It is a dual narrative, with the author as narrator in the present, as well as, simultaneously, an account of Operation Anthropoid, the attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – Himmler’s right hand man, architect of the Final Solution, and brutal Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia known as “The Butcher of Prague.” The narrative taking place in the present is that of the author, of his struggles with his story, with only a few interesting droplets about his life. The author's narrative makes this novel into something more than "just" a novel about Heydrich's assassination. It becomes a postmodern treatise on the novel -- even while, somehow, critiquing the nihilism of postmodernism -- and a discussion on truth. To be fair, the historical narrative is also more than the story of Heydrich's death. It is the story of his life and the lives of those who killed him. It is the context of all these lives: central European history, the Great War, the rise of National Socialism, anti-semitism, the betrayal of the Munich Agreement, Prague. At times, Binet's scope is incredibly broad, but perhaps because of the author's narrative, HHhH feels very intimate. The author's narrative serves to remind the reader why, for example, we are reading about medieval German settlement in Bohemia or other such interesting but seemingly unrelated stories. Beyond these reminders, the author allows the reader to see into his mind, his obsession with Operation Anthropoid, to experience his doubts, his concerns about what to include and not to include, and, in a more limited sense, the effects of writing and obsession on loved ones. While the author’s narrative is not the traditional account of his own life so common to dual narratives, it is certainly the account of the life this novel.HHhH is thought provoking on many levels: the philosophical issues of crafting the novel, of story telling, of truth, of what motivates men to brutality and hate and bravery and betrayal. The struggle in HHhH is not really about whether the two Czechoslovak heroes will successfully assassinate Heydrich; that story is, if not well-known today, easily checked. HHhH is also the struggle of the author to not lose himself in the often self-centered questions of his own life, at the expense of those whose lives he is recounting. Just like our heroes, the author is successful. We still hear the historical narrative, loud and clear, in all its harshness and brutality. For Heydrich was a brutal man; his reign as "protector" of Bohemia and Moravia was marked by extreme cruelty and violence, as were the reactions of the Nazi regime on the Czech people after his assassination. This makes HHhH, at times, difficult to read. But Binet also recounts stunning, shining, astonishing examples of bravery – the sort that make you wonder, what if it were me? – that counteract the darkness of Nazism. The heroes of Operation Anthropoid paid for their success with their lives; the reader is left wondering what his authorial success cost our narrator.
  • (5/5)
    Really really enjoyed this book. Easy to read, exciting, different. I loved how the author discussed his own journey to discovery and his qualms about writing the book. I had never heard of the assassination attempt on Heydrich previously so I also learnt a lot
  • (3/5)

    Maybe 3.5. I can see the point of using casual narration to offset the intensity of the story, but at times I felt it went too far and bordered on sloppiness / laziness, e.g. "I haven't had time to investigate more deeply." "I would love to know the contents of that letter. I should have copied it down in Czech when I had the chance." This is a shame because I think the author was comprehensive in his research. I just wish he hadn't weakened his message by revealing so much of what he didn't do.
  • (4/5)
    History written somewhat like a novel, but with a commitment to accuracy and bonus meta-commentary on the process of writing history/biography. Also, a story that has some spy/adventure components but keeps the horror of WWII pretty central. It's crazy that this true story isn't more well known.
  • (3/5)
    This was a very differently written type of historical fiction; a stream of consciousness novel where a narrator who happens to be writing a book about the assassination of Heydrich lets the reader in on all his thought processes, feelings, and personal life. In the beginning I found this fascinating as the narrator imparts many little known facts (at least by me) of Heydrich's early life and marriage, the forming of the Nazi party and Hitler and the Night of Long Knives and the forming of his security system. By the end of the book, however, I just found the narrator tedious and wished he would just get on a tell the story already.
  • (5/5)
    A spellbinding retelling of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by a Czech and a Slovak acting parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia by British intelligence. It provides a mini-biography of Heydrich, his rise to power, and his brutality--not just as one of the architects of the Final Solution but also as the overlord of occupied Czechoslovakia (or technically occupied Bohemia and Moravia as Slovakia was a German puppet state). It also tells somewhat more briefly, likely reflecting the dearth of information, the story of how the assassins, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, escaped the Nazis, ended up in England, were trained for the mission and parachuted back in.The conclusion following Heydrich's assassination is even more heartbreaking than the rest of the book, depicting both the brutal and borderline random German reprisals and the tragic deaths of Kubiš and Gabčík.Judging from the few reviews I quickly skimmed, I'm in the minority in liking the authors method which is to tell the story in short chapters (about 270 in all) with frequent postmodern intrusions of the authorial voice talking about how he is writing the book, the books he read to research it, where he is not sure of the facts (in some cases going back and correcting earlier chapters), how he is incapable of rendering the full tribute that the Czechoslovak partisans deserve, etc. I found the story was so powerful that these frequent authorial intrusions did not diminish it in any way. And in fact they enhanced it by making you more confident in the credibility of the story, which itself allows you to be more immersed in it, because the author is so clear about the limits of his telling that you are that much more confident in what is there. (Plus I got a few more recommendations of books I had never heard of but now am interested in reading.)
  • (4/5)
    One of those books that people either like or dislike depending on whether or not they appreciate the style. I liked it! After all, how can a historian separate himself from the history he tries to write? A historical novel about the assassination attempt on the life of Reinhard Heydrich, the people involved, the WW2 milieu and the aftermath.