By Laurent Binet
Harvill Secker, 336pp, £16.99
This is a superb book, a fresh and fascinating account of the 1942 assassination attempt by two brave Czechoslovaks on the "Butcher of Prague" and "Hitler’s hangman", Reinhard Heydrich.
It’s also the story of how the French author, Laurent Binet, came to write the book. After initial excitement about the mysterious unnamed narrator, Binet himself admitted recently that they were identical. How he weaves his account of the traumas and thrills of writing the book into his own quirky, impassioned history-telling is what makes this book truly original.
HHhH won France’s Prix Goncourt Du Premier Roman in 2010; it arrives here in seamless English and groaning with accolades from Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis and Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s being hailed as a new kind of radical-experimental meta-fiction and Binet playfully calls it an "infranovel" but above all it is a highly readable reconstruction of history with a lightness of touch belying Binet’s years of research and neurotic obsession with the story.
"I must immerse myself in a period to understand its spirit", he explains in HHhH. He confesses to imagining scenes and dialogue (after much agonising over the morality of this) and to adding "the veneer of fiction" to a "fabulous story".
So the narrator is one of the main characters in the book. He is the son of a Jewish mother and Communist father, a young teacher from Paris. In HHhH he is investigating the truth of "Operation Anthropoid", a story he first heard as a child. We hear how his long-suffering girlfriends have to tolerate his fixation with Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s number two. Hence the title of the book: "HHhH" is the German acronym for "Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich". Blond, tall, clever Heydrich was the brain to Himmler’s brawn.
The book begins with a tribute to the Czechoslovak resistance to the Nazis and it’s refreshing to read a writer who understands Czechoslovak history well. We are told that the two men, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, one Czech, one Slovak, enlisted and trained by the British to kill Heydrich, are the true heroes of this story, "the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history". But their heroism is eclipsed here by the portrayal of the diamond-cut brilliance and evil genius of Heydrich.
The protagonist of HHhH – or, as Binet calls him, "the target" - is the archetypal Aryan Nazi, appointed Acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in 1941. Even Hitler referred to him as "the most dangerous man in the Third Reich". He was born into a wealthy, patriotic musical family in 1904 and became a talented violinist. He joined the German Navy aged 18. After a couple of life-changing events – marrying the Nazi aristocrat Lina von Osten and convincing Himmler that he was an intelligence expert, in spite of only having read English spy novels - Heydrich rose quickly within the Nazi pantheon. He became head of the Gestapo and a mastermind of the Holocaust and the Final Solution.
Binet wrestles with Heydrich, trawls through his childhood, marriage and womanising, gets inside his head, until he delivers him up to us, the magnificent madman,"the Blond Beast", ready to die.
The book is written chronologically in 257 short, breezy chapters as Binet’s contemporary research feeds into real events. At times he sounds like a manic PhD student, one day up, one day down: "I read a brilliant book!" , he tells us, but then, "I’m fighting a losing battle….I keep banging my head against the wall of history."
He’s witty too and enjoys pricking the pomposity of historical figures: Chamberlain is "vile and stupid" and Heydrich has a "horsey face, high-pitched voice, well-polished boots". But underpinning it all, there’s serious analysis and new insight into events, such as the Babi Yar massacre, Heydrich’s death and the stand-off in the Prague church when the two heroes are cornered and later die.
The narrator is so immersed in events, that by the time he reaches the actual day Gabcik and Yubis plan to attack "the target", he is fully inhabiting his characters: He is with Heydrich on 27 May 27 1942 as he is driven through Prague in his open-top Mercedes, his assassins close, ready to shoot. Heydrich is 38, at the height of his evil powers. The night before he hosted a star-studded concert of German music. Binet too is now at the height of his descriptive powers and the final fictional showdown leaves you breathless. "While Heydrich’s Mercedes snakes along the thread of his knotted destiny . . ."
The gun jams, Kubis throws a grenade wounding Heydrich, who later dies. In retaliation Hitler orders mass slaughter of the Czechs. At the end of his powerful story, the author is exhausted, sickened by these events and "worn out by my muddled efforts to salute these people".