Thursday, February 13, 2014

Laurent Binet's "HHhH": Book Review

This novel's curious title derives from the German initials of the phrase "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." That is, Reinhard(t), Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, #2 man in the Nazi ranks, and "the Butcher of Prague." While Laurent Binet's topic may be very well-known among students of Middle European history, the Czech lands, and of WWII, the heroism shown by Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, one Slovak, one Czech, to fight for their nation against tyranny deserves retelling.

As with two recent, massive novels  influences this French author credits, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (which he disparages as "Houellebecq does Nazis") and William T. Vollmann's Europe Central, HHhH takes on a modern perspective, plunging a reader into the German mindset and the frenzy of the era, seasoned with a retrospective judgement upon the morality abused or rescued in WWII.

The difference? Binet chooses never to immerse himself into fiction. Most of these three-hundred quickly told pages (a fraction of Littell or Vollmann) treat the subject and how it defies the reversion to fantasy or imagination. That becomes Binet's obsession. Inspired by his two Czechoslovak figures, sent to England to train for their suicide mission behind enemy lines, Binet prefers to examine the historical record and to fill in the gaps, with some dialogue and invented scenes, but only when he cannot make the facts fit his tale. Fewer times, therefore, than expected, we learn how subsequent testimony by survivors accounts for both Nazi and enemy reactions, and from these, juxtaposed with Binet's reading and reactions, the novel slowly accrues.

Operation Anthropoid, as the English termed it with the Czechoslovak resistance, itself decimated under Heydrich, draws us into the antagonist. "It's as if a Dr. Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying monster." (99) Worse, for he kills not on paper but in person and through his minions.

How Binet conveys this may annoy some readers. He makes it personal, and mixes up his "visions with the known facts. It's just how it is." (105) But then, on the same page, he backtracks, and he admits his mistakes as he researches his storyline. He knows "fiction does not respect anything," but he also know that the drama inherent in his subject causes him to imagine what cannot be verified.

Real people are "both greater and more flawed than any fictional character." The chapters #250 + #251 prove gripping, even though--or because--I had visited the crypt in question and seen the place commemorated today in Prague. The climax shows courage amidst absurdity. "I think the world is ridiculous, moving, and cruel. The same is true for this book: the story is cruel, the protagonists are moving, and I am ridiculous. But I am in Prague." (320) In that city of a hundred towers, the power of the predicament that seven Resistance fighters choose in 1942 remains resonant, and poignant. Amazon US 9-25-13

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