Book Review: HHhH
by Laurent Binet
(translated from the French by Sam Taylor)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
Laurent Binet’s book HHhH concerns Operation Anthropoid, a coordinated attempt by Karl Svoboda and Jan Kubis to assassinate Nazi procurator Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May of 1942. The operation almost failed (though wounded, Heydrich survived it and died days later of infection), and Hitler exacted enormous reprisals throughout Bohemia and Moravia for the death of his zealous henchman, the so-called “Butcher of Prague” and the mastermind behind some of the Reich’s darkest evils. The story is inherently dramatic, and in HHhH, Binet recounts it with such flair and propulsive speed that the book became an international bestseller and won its author the Prix Goncourt for First Novel.
The English version has met with decidedly less enthusiasm from American book-critics (through no fault of Sam Taylor’s refreshingly transparent translation), and part of the reason may be the post-modern pranking the book’s author does with nomenclature. No doubt with a wink toward the semiotics crowd at the back of the room, HHhH has been sub-titled “a novel” even though it self-evidently isn’t one. The people in the book – museum curators, girlfriends, girlfriends’ family members, author’s family members, etc. – are all demonstrably nonfictional; the snatches of their dialogue recorded here are all verbatim; Binet’s itinerary of various museums and historical societies is documentable step-by-step, as is the evolution of his thoughts about his subject.
There are tape recordings, journal entries, published fragments, personal letters and emails, dozens of witnesses; the author has written a novella-length personal essay, a meditation not only on Heydrich and Operation Anthropoid but also on the very process of studying those things, and the tolls such study can exact. The fact that either he or his publishers decided at some point to label the end result a novel (and got those scamps at the Prix in on the prank, knowingly or not) couldn’t be less important – except, apparently, to American book-critics who read the label and immediately started rifling the contents for sub-plots and denouements and such. Binet could have labelled it a cookbook if he’d liked, but as my dear mother used to say, “if he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump too?” As a novel, yes, HHhH fails very badly – but it also fails very badly as a can of paint, or a chicken salad sandwich, or a corgi.
As an essay, it succeeds with almost spellbinding confidence and Hitchcockian control. Binet slowly, gradually moves his essay from peripheries of the main event and the biographies of the men involved (his insights into the seedy, off-kilter background of Heydrich and his wife are particularly unsettling – we find, as was surely the author’s intent, that we know this man, that we’ve met him many times in our lives) to the fateful day and the nearly-botched execution, one of the greatest acts of basically civilian resistance the Nazis ever faced. Binet draws steadily closer to that moment, taking his girlfriend to various Prague commemorative sites, trying to get hands-on experience with the elements involved (scrutinizing the black limousine in which Heydrich was riding, practicing with the British-made style of machine gun one of the assassins tried to use, etc.) – and quickly feeling the same kind of low-grade obsession the subject has so often evoked in researchers:
Natacha rents a studio apartment in Montmartre: the entry code for the door is 4206; I think straightaway of June 42. Natacha tells me the date of her sister’s wedding: I yell cheerfully, “May twenty-seventh! Unbelievable! The day of the assassination!” Natacha shakes her head. Going through Munich last summer on our way back from Budapest, we witness something staggering in the main square of the old town: a neo-Nazi rally. The shamefaced locals tell me they’ve never seen such a thing. I don’t know if I believe them.
Along the way, Binet pauses often to meditate on the Nazi superstructure that raised Heydrich to such prominence and drew so much of its nature from him, and many of these little meditations are quickly, quietly powerful:
Hitler never joked about morals. Since the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, it is officially forbidden for a Jew to have sexual relations with an Aryan. The crime is punishable by a prison sentence.
But, amazingly, only the man can be prosecuted. It was evidently Hitler’s wish that the woman, whether Jewish or Aryan, should not be at the mercy of the law.
Heydrich, more Catholic than the pope, doesn’t see it that way. This discrimination between men and women offends his sense of equality (although only when the woman is a Jew, of course). So in 1937 he gives secret instructions to the Kripo (criminal police) and the Gestapo that, in the event of any German man being found guilty of sleeping with a Jew, the woman would automatically be arrested and sent discreetly to a concentration camp.
In other words, when the Nazi leaders are – for once – order to show a degree of moderation, they are unafraid to thwart the Fuhrer’s will. This is interesting when you consider that obedience to orders, in the name of military honor and sworn oaths, was the only argument put forward after the war to justify these men’s crimes.
But Binet’s absorption never turns to sympathy, never threatens to; Heydrich stands always in his mind’s eye as a creature of utmost evil. At a conference in “the wood-paneled rooms of the Majestic Hotel” in Paris, Nazi leaders gather to discuss the methods Hitler’s death-squads have cobbled together to kill Jews by loading them into sealed trucks and suffocating them with exhaust fumes, and Binet’s subject is at the heart of things:
But these mobile gas chambers, Heydrich explains, are still not sophisticated enough. He says: “Better solutions, more advanced and more productive, are on their way.” Then, his audience hanging on his every word, he adds abruptly: “All the Jews in Europe have been sentenced to death.” Given that the Einsatzgruppen have already executed more than a million Jews, you have to wonder who among his audience hasn’t yet understood this.
This is the second time I’ve caught Heydrich overdramatizing this kind of statement. When he informed Eichmann, just before [the similar conference at] Wannsee, that the Fuhrer had decided upon the physical elimination of all the Jews, his colleague was struck by the dramatic silence that followed this announcement. In both cases, even if nothing was really official beforehand, you can’t say it came as a great surprise. More than the pleasure of delivering a scoop, I think Heydrich enjoyed verbalizing the incredible, the unthinkable, as if to give substance to the unimaginable truth. This is what I’ve got to tell you – you already know it, but it’s up to me to tell you, and it’s up to us to do it. The orator, dizzy from speaking the unspeakable. The monster, drunk on the thought of the monstrosities he heralds.
By the time the book arrives at the actual assassination and the fate of the brave men who carried it out, HHhH has reached a pitch of tension that – not to start trouble! – a novelist would envy, and the whole of it is so precisely crafted that it will remain in the reader’s mind long afterward, again like a good novel. These stories have an unpleasant but undeniable power, as Binet himself observes at the end of his essay, remarking “My story is finished and my book should be, too, but I’m discovering that it’s impossible to be finished with a story like this.”