Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Book #32 HHhH by Laurent Binet


Length of Time In Possession : 3 weeks

So I follow C, with another book with just a letter for the title. In this case HHhH stands for 'Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich' - meaning Himmler's Brain is called Heydrich,  the phrase which circulated in Nazi Germany to indicate that though Himmler had more power, Heydrich was the brains behind the outfit.

Written by French author Laurent Binet, it won the Prix Goncourt (the French version of the Booker Prize) in 2010. This translation by Sam Taylor has since made a splash over this side of the Channel, selling well and was chosen by my book club this month.

HHhH is an odd book. Ostensibly the story of two Czech heroes Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, sent by British Intelligence to assassinate Heydrich, then the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. (now known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia) One of Hitler's highest operatives Reinhard Heydrich was also the brains behind The Final Solution.

On the one hand the novel is this story and on the other it is the story of Binet himself reflecting on the process of writing the novel as he goes along, and on the nature of historical fiction itself.

Oddly, the novel has been marketed as fiction, which as it is about a) a historical event and b) a writers autobiography on the process of writing it, seems a slightly strange marketing decision, unless as a classic example of metafiction, what the author presents about the writing process is actually untrue.

Binet talks at length about wanting to keep imagination and supposition out of HHhH which would make the novel not a work of historical fiction but a history book.

The trouble was that the more Binet discussed the differences between what he was doing and a work of historical fiction : inventing the clothes people wore or their conversations for literary effect etc, the more I wished I was reading the book he didn't want to write!

I found myself thinking of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's imagining of Thomas Cromwell and wishing I was reading or could read the same style of novel about Reinhard Heydrich. Suggestions welcome.

Whilst discussing the writing process with the reader as you go is an original thing to do, (I know there may be other examples of this but HHhH was a first in this regard for me) Binet unfortunately becomes quite irritating the more you go on throughout the book.

The first example of this is discussion of a book that only exists in German about Heydrich that he is considering using for research, after some debate he decides he doesn't need it. Two sections later he makes reference to its content, and then says he changed his mind, whilst this is an intriguing insight into the thought process of any and all writers, it becomes very repetitious throughout the novel.

Ultimately it detracts from the story of Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, which is whatever way you look at it an amazing tale of bravery and heroism, of which I was hitherto unaware. Throughout, Binet's central desire is that he wants to do these two heroes real justice and part of me feels in a way that he failed to do so, by the over insertion of himself into this narrative. 

That said, from a point of view of challenging how we talk about historical figures in literature and in challenging accepted form and style, you have to admire and respect this book on an intellectual and artistic level. Ultimately my problem was that whilst I admired it, I ended up wishing the book hadn't been this way.....

Verdict : 8/10

Destination : Charity Shop 

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