HHhH, by Laurent Binet

review published on July 2, 2013. Reviewed by Erin Britton

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

I could tell you that Laurent Binet’s debut novel won a host of awards and was selected for several Book of the Month promotions. I could tell you about the lady who, nearly in tears, stormed to the counter in one particular bookshop and demanded that the posters advertising HHhH be taken down because she had brothers who fought in the War and she didn’t want to have to look at such things. The posters were taken down but I should tell you that the book continued to sell well. I could tell you all of these things but they would only be tangential to the efficacy of this review.

Laurent Binet will tell you about the differences between Czechs and Slovaks, about his father who may or may not have had an interest in history, about his girlfriend(s), about his career, about the amount that he will or will not spend on rare books, and about his attempt(s) to write his own book. Laurent Binet will ultimately tell you about Reinhard Heydrich.

Reinhard Heydrich enjoyed being head of the Nazi secret services and that’s really enough information for you to get the measure of the man. Alternatively known as ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’ and ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’ (a title for which there was no shortage of contenders), Heydrich was one of the main architects of the Holocaust and was responsible for innumerable deaths.

He may have notionally worked for Heinrich Himmler but Heydrich supplied most of his boss’s “best” ideas. Heydrich might not now be so much of a household name as other Nazis but he was behind so much of the calculated evil of the regime that members of the SS used to say that “Himmler’s brain is called Heydich” (or “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich” as it would have been) which ultimately gave rise to HHhH.

The Czechoslovakian government-in-exile was based in London. Czechoslovaks like Edvard Benes wanted to see the downfall of Heydrich, not just because of the atrocities that he was committing in their home country but because he was the favourite to succeed Hitler as Fuhrer. Together with the British SOE, these exiled politicos masterminded Operation Anthropoid. Slovak Josef Gabcik and Czech Jan Kubis were parachuted into Czechoslovakia on 28th December 1941. They were to make their way to Prague and, when the time was right, assassinate Heinrich Heydrich. HHhH is the story of Operation Anthropoid and much, much more.

Reinhard Heydrich was a real person. Operation Anthropoid was a real mission. Prague is a real place. HHhH is a nonfiction novel. In true In Cold Blood style, Laurent Binet has had to extrapolate from known sources and fill in the blanks where doubt exists. After all, private conversations and internal monologues did occur during World War Two. However, as Binet will tell you himself, he has undertaken copious amounts of research and sought to track as closely as possible his “characters’” real personalities and speech patterns. Everything certainly rings true.

In addition to augmenting the reality of Operation Anthropoid, Binet has also taken the postmodern step of inserting himself and his writing process into HHhH. His style may take a while to get used to – and some sections of the book (for there are nothing so prosaic as page numbers here) may seem a trifle self-indulgent – but it ultimately works very well, with the drip feeding of information adding to the tension of the story and leading to the temptation to read “just one more page” before putting the book down. Taken as a whole, HHhH certainly raises questions as to how accurate the writing of history can ever really be and how easy it could be to hoodwink readers.

HHhH is a truly gripping and insightful account of life under the Nazis and of the bravery and gumption behind Operation Anthropoid as well as the horror that was to follow for the citizens of Czechoslovakia. It’s also an interesting account of the writing process and the way it is possible to become completely enmeshed with the subjects of your obsessive interest. HHhH is heartily recommended for those who want to know more about Heinrich Heyrich, Nazism, the War in Czechoslovakia, and the thought processes of Laurent Binet.


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