HHhH by Laurent Binet
Harvill Secker $34.99
With 67 years having elapsed since World War II and with its events escaping from living memory, the output of war histories, novels, films and television series continues undiminished. Much of it, inevitably, is dross, offensively shallow in relation to the events. This novel by Laurent Binet is a remarkable exception and, while it is easy to remain sceptical of the worth of literary awards, you can see how this extraordinarily accomplished first book captured the judges of France's Prix Goncourt du premier roman (first novel).
Binet, born 30 years after the episode, focuses on the assassination attempt in 1942 of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi deputy protector of Bohemia and Moravia. The attack was carried out principally by Jozef Gabcik, a Slovak, and Jan Kubis, a Czech, who were trained in Britain and parachuted into their occupied homeland.
The target, Heydrich, was one of the most notorious of Hitler's bunch of psychotic bureaucrats. Known as "the hangman of Prague" and "the blond beast", he was the deputy of Heinrich Himmler but the gossip in the SS held that "Himmler's Hirn heist Heydrich" (HHhH) - Himmler's brain is called Heydrich."
The basic details of the operation and the savagery of the reprisals that followed are well known and have been the subject of several accounts and Binet refers to several of them. But he provides a matchless panoramic approach and no aspect of the affair eludes him.
The historical background to the war is explained with a scathing analysis of how the pusillanimous approach of Chamberlain and the French in the face of Hitler's aggression contributed to the Nazi success. The growing power of the Nazis was matched by the rising prestige of Heydrich, whose qualities perfectly suited the regime's needs. Unlike Himmler or, indeed Hitler, Heydrich's Aryan looks fitted the Third Reich ideal, as did his pitiless lack of humanity. Hitler called him "the man with the iron heart" and he was instrumental in formulating the final solution, the
elimination of the Jews, at the infamous Wannsee conference.
Binet's portrait of Heydrich reveals with chilling clarity the moral vacuum at the heart of Nazism. He is equally adroit in illuminating the contrasting virtues of the resistance fighters and those civilians who sheltered and supported them with a courage that is as difficult to comprehend as is the brutality of the massacre of innocents at Lidice and the other reprisals.
There will be few readers of this book who will not know what happened in the assassination attempt but Binet still contrives to build up a tension worthy of the best thrillers. All of this, achieved with an admirable economy, would add up to a great book but Binet adds another layer.
Interwoven with the story of the assassination, yet not being irritating digressions, are personal reflections on the genesis of the book, his love of Prague and, most engagingly, thoughts on the nature of historical fiction.
To what extent is it legitimate to invent dialogue for which there is no evidence? Binet grapples with the difficulties of including details of doubtful provenance and scenes which may never have happened but are convincing.
In a fascinating demonstration of the creative process, he invents passages and then rejects them, constantly aware of the triviality of his artistic dilemmas compared with the real perils of his subjects. All of this does, of course, bring into discussion the nature not just of historical fiction but of history itself and how arbitrary may be the distinction between them.
There are not enough books that blend the profound and the entertaining. This is one and it comes in a sparkling translation by novelist Sam Taylor that avoids the clunky nature of some of this imprint's efforts.
John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.