Laurent Binet took an unusual gamble when composing his debut novel HHhH, a unique blend of WWII history, personal memoir and postmodern experimentation. Rather than conceal his book’s nuts and bolts and assume absolute authority over the facts of his story, Binet has laid bare his laborious process: challenges with research, creative dilemmas, competitive anxieties, and all. The gamble paid off handsomely: HHhH won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and, in its impressive translation from the French by Sam Taylor, has attracted widespread exuberant praise.
Binet’s ostensible subject is the heroic and undersung mission of two commandos, a Slovak and a Czech, sent by the British to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the high-ranking Nazi who ruled German-occupied Bohemia and Moravia and masterminded the Final Solution. The title stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich—Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich—an SS saying derived from the fact that, explains Binet, “in the devilish duo he forms with Himmler, he is thought to be the brains.”
We don’t meet our heroic assassins until nearly a third of the way in, though, because, in keeping with Binet’s policy of writerly disclosure, he must first depict the book’s genesis in his own life. The Paris-born son of a Jewish mother and a Communist father, Binet first learned about Heydrich as an adolescent, then did his military service in Slovakia, where he sought out more information on “the story of the assassination.” From there, a growing obsession with his future protagonists, Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, takes hold of his imagination. He watches a movie, Conspiracy, with Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich. He goes to the crypt in Prague where Gabčik and Kubiš were ultimately cornered by the SS. And he reads endless books on WWII. “I learn loads of things,” says Binet, “some with only a distant connection to Heydrich, but I tell myself that everything can be useful, that I must immerse myself in a period to understand its spirit—and the thread of knowledge, once you pull at it, continues unraveling on its own.”
It may unravel on its own, but that doesn’t mean that it is straightforward to resurrect history. Especially when you’re unwilling to resort to the novelistic conventions of, say, Alan Burgess, whose 1960 novel about the strike against Heydrich is dismissed by Binet on the basis of its “clichés” and various creative liberties. The inconvenient existence of other, similar books is dealt with, but Binet reserves his snidest takedown for Jonathan Littell and his 2006 novel The Kindly Ones, which focuses on the same Nazi villains as HHhH. Binet confesses to being discomfited by the book and its success, until he decides that it’s simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.” (Originally there were many more pages devoted to Binet’s reading of Littell, but his French publisher cut them for fear of causing offense.)
Still, for all Binet’s emphasis on textual deconstruction—“[p]retending that everything is true . . . is an old trick . . . that doesn’t particularly interest me,” he once said in an interview—he often manages to have his cake and eat it too. As the fascinating story of “Operation Anthropoid” is woven into his personal musings, he grippingly conjures key episodes in the drama with all the flair of a novelist working in the realist mode—only to excuse himself of liability when admitting in subsequent chapters that he’d been obliged to make up certain details, or that he’d since discovered some conflicting information.
Nor is Binet entirely averse to contrivance: while he’ll sometimes confess to changing or revising parts, he also maintains the pretense that his narrative is unfolding in an unimpeded flow—“I would rather jot down a useless detail,” he says at one point, “than risk missing a crucial one.” Later, he announces: “My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I’m a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.” HHhH is a witty and thought-provoking exploration of how stories are constructed, historically, literarily, and biographically. Yet in the end, Binet’s preoccupation with conveying the haphazardness of his approach seems, ironically, as disingenuous a means of claiming authority as the traditional techniques he disavows. By emphasizing the wholly subjective, unvarnished nature of his account, he forestalls most grounds for criticism—while still displaying the kind of talent that could produce an excellent “ordinary novel,” should he ever choose to write one.