Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich - chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells HHhH . All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.
‘I would like a copy of that H book, please’: I’m fully expecting to hear a lot at our front counters this year. HHhH - it’s certainly an intriguing title, isn’t it? I might add that the UK publishers, Harvill Secker, have produced a fantastic cover design to match, of which more anon.
Need the publisher’s blurb though - at least on my proof copy - have given away what the letters stand for? The author, Laurent Binet, chooses not to mention this abbreviation (and only then in passing) until nearly half-way through his novel. He has also previously revealed in the text that if the book we are holding in our hands isn’t called Operation Anthropoid, his preference, then his publisher has stepped in (for they will have considered the latter title ‘too SF, too Robert Ludlum, apparently’).
But truth be told, and seemingly rather banally, HHhH stands for ‘Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich’ (German for: ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’) - a little joke which summarised the SS’s opinion of the respective aptitudes of their boss, Himmler, and his 2IC, Heydrich. The latter - ‘Protector of Bohemia’ from 1941, and, as it happens, a principal architect of the ‘Final Solution’ - was, in May 1942, the subject of an assassination attempt in Prague, from which he died due to complications from his injuries a few days later: a significant calamity for the Reich. His story, and the plot (codenamed ‘Operation Anthropoid’), is the nominal subject of this book.
Yet… just think for a moment of that letter ‘H’ and its historical resonance in the context of the years of Nazi rule: Hitler + Himmler + Heydrich + Hess + Hoess (commandant of Auschwitz) - to name only the highest-ranking despots… And their role in the ultimate H-word, the Holocaust. The front cover provides a strong visual cue here: the blurring of the face of the Nazi officer pictured (Heydrich, or…?) symbolises surely their utter interchangeability.
Likewise, Binet has attempted to write a book here which makes Reinhard Heydrich not a character in a gripping historical drama (which of course on one level it certainly was, and Binet discusses (intertextually, as it were) several popular movies, novels and histories based on these dramatic events). Rather, he makes of Heydrich not so much a protagonist, but instead a target or cipher, through whom all the better to interrogate and report on the historical record (again, the cover amplifies this nicely with its fine, gunsight-like lines intersecting the letters). In particular, Binet’s concern is to bear witness to the tremendous bravery on the one hand of the Czech resistance, from the three main operatives tasked with the plot to kill ‘the Blonde Beast’ (as Heydrich was often referred to), to all their many helpers; and conversely to note the insipid collaboration of the quislings and informers that helped perpetuate his reign of terror, and abetted the awful retribution that took place in the wake of his death.
But the glory of the book is Binet’s insistence that aesthetic problems are also ethical ones. He is at pains to always locate himself in the narrative, often very amusingly (‘I’ve been talking rubbish…’); to stress when he doesn’t have sufficient evidence to be making certain statements (but most amusingly sometimes saying them anyway, acknowledging the freedom fiction affords); and avoiding at all costs ‘puerile novelistic invention’. He’s not averse to naming names either – from his lierary idol Flaubert, to one recent bestselling fiction (Jonathon Littell’s The Kindly Ones) which comes in for some blistering criticism on the charge: ‘why would one invent Nazism?“, with Littell’s work being pilloried as 'Houellebecq does Nazism’.
Above all Binet mounts a case for literature as a repository of memory: ‘Memory is of no use to the remembered, only to those who remember. We build ourselves with memory and console ourselves with memory’.
So to my mind Binet is interested primarily in a literature of restitution. He is the first to admit that the historical record of this calamitous period has been a subject of fascination, even obsession, for him for many, many years. What to do however with this knowledge? Is there something tangible he can do for a country, Czechoslovakia, and a city, Prague, that are - as he admits - the loves of his life? HHhH is the astounding result, which honours at least some of all those individuals who resisted so bravely the Nazi occupation, and is a kaddish too for all those millions, predominantly Jews, whose lives were simply extinguished. In an ironic sort of way then, Binet seems to be saying: ‘it was worth writing about Heydrich after all’.
Indeed, this is a ‘war book’ if you will whose only concern is the sanctity and dignity of life. You will read it and weep; but also rejoice. Bravo Monsieur Binet, bravo!
Martin Shaw, Readings’ Books Division Manager, is what they call a ‘career bookseller’, which might be an interesting concept as the world turns ‘E’. Formerly an avid fiction reader, now ‘Jolly Jumper’ supervisor to an adorable 7-month-old. Follow him on twitter - @thebooksdesk
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