Binet Combines Narrative and Nonfiction in Captivating Debut

“HHhH” by Laurent Binet

“Once again, the writer stains the tree of History with his thoughts, but it is not for us to find the trick that would enable us to put the animal back in its carrying cage,” writes Russian poet Osip Mandelstam in “The End of the Novel,” the epigraph to French author Laurent Binet’s debut novel “HHhH.” With his novel, however, Binet does more than leave his mark upon history; he revives it. In creating an ambitious work of literature that transcends all genres by combining personal narrative and nonfiction storytelling, the author manages to capture the imagination of his readers and preserve historical accuracy while tracing one of the greater stains in world history.

The novel’s title comes from an acronym for the German phrase ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich.’ Translated in English as ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,’ it is a reference to Reinhard Heydrich, an infamous Nazi SS general and the antagonist of the story, whose extreme devotion to the Third Reich supported, and sometimes even supplanted, that of his superior Heinrich Himmler. The novel follows a relatively straightforward historical plot rooted in Heydrich’s assassination by two men, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, one Czech, the other Slovak. Having lost their country’s freedom in the Nazi expansion during the initial years of World War II, the two assassins take their revenge with the help of British secret service and a crew of Czech resistance fighters.

What makes Binet’s work different from your average historical-fiction novel is the way in which he structures his writing: by alternating between his life and the lives of Heydrich, Gabcik, Kubis, and those of various supporting characters, the author manages to place himself directly in the story, weaving his personal struggles, triumphs, and fascinations into the fabric of history and the remarkably true storyline.

The novel begins with Heydrich’s childhood and rise to his status as the “Butcher of Prague,” the Reich protector of the city, and one of the most feared men within the Nazi cabinet. The short chapters alternate between heavily researched historical fiction and the writer’s commentary on what he writes. “If my dialogues can’t be based on precise, faithful, word-perfect sources, they will be invented,” asserts Binet. “And just so there’s no confusion, all the dialogues I invent (there won’t be many) will be written like scenes from a play. A stylistic drop in an ocean of reality.” This statement of action follows the author’s vision of his writing, one that evolves from start to end to accommodate Binet’s musings on his subject.

“I think I’m beginning to understand,” states Binet at one point in his novel. “What I’m writing is an infranovel,” or a meta-novel that examines itself. Bursts of discoveries like this, scattered throughout the work, make the experience of reading akin to reading a diary of sorts. Binet speaks to the audience, correcting himself when needed, sometimes providing snippets of his personal life that has undoubtedly been affected during the process of writing “HHhH.” Quirky, amusing, and sometimes annoying, the author’s interjections provide a very personal lens through which to view the gripping story. In fact, the history behind “HHhH” is so riveting that it almost seems like fiction. The plight of the protagonists as they train for the mission, kill Heydrich, and then run for their lives, mixed with the sadistic character of the ideal Nazi Heydrich could make the backdrop of a very imaginative thriller. Everything, from the secret training of Gabcik and Kubis by the British Secret Service to the thoroughly crafted ‘Operation Anthropoid’ to kill Heydrich, and the two protagonists’ subsequent face-off with the Nazi SS is completely, irrevocably true and rooted in history.

And it is this forever-unchangeable element of history that Binet feeds off of to evoke the monumentality of his subject matter. Much of the novel consists of Binet speaking directly to the reader, which forms a unique connection between author, subject, and audience. “You are becoming something that grows inside you, and that begins, little by little, to be bigger than you, but at the same time you remain very much yourself,” states Binet. “You are a simple man. You are a man. You are Josef Gabcik or Jan Kubis, and you are going to make history.” The powerful effect of the novel comes from Binet’s placing his reader, as he himself did during the creation of his novel, in the shoes of Gabcik and Kubis, allowing for the possibility of living and feeling as the characters once did in real time.

But the extent to which a person can fully reconstruct history is limited, and this is one of the challenges that Binet faces and acknowledges throughout his novel. “I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history,” he bemoans. “And I look up and see, growing all over it—even higher and denser, like a creepy ivy—the unmappable pattern of causality.” The past is fundamentally too far from Binet’s reach for him to fully express it to a contemporary audience, but nonetheless his attempt is laudable in that it takes a completely new approach and faces these challenges with the rationality of an author who prides himself on keeping facts separate from speculation.

“Memory is life... It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived,” writes French essayist Pierre Nora in “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” “History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer.” Although it is a book rooted in history, through its direct prose and amalgamation of literary styles “HHhH” is also the continuation of a memory. Through the words of Binet, Gabcik, Kubis, and Heydrich live on, for better or for worse, and remain as much a fixture today as they did decades ago.

—Staff writer Jihyun Ro can be reached at jihyunro@college.harvard.edu.

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