Winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and translated from the French by Sam Taylor, Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH centers around the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, referenced in the title as “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich,” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,” and said to be one of the most dangerous men in Hitler’s cabinet, “the Butcher of Prague.” But HHhH is not a history book, though it isn’t entirely fiction either, and this unexpected combination is what makes the novel so enthralling, so clever, and so divinely human.
Himmler looks like someone’s just smacked him in the face. The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull. […] Natacha reads the chapter I’ve just written. When she reaches the second sentence, she exclaims: “What do you mean, ‘The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull’? You’re making it up!”
We all know that history books are feathered with fictional adornments, flourishes based perhaps in fact but not factual. These additions to the concrete foundation of historical scenes enlivens them, brings them to life, gives them legs to stand on and color in their faces. Writers of the historical ilk, at least the good ones, understand that history is what we make of it, and so a modicum of stretched fabric is necessary over its skeletal face. Binet though goes one step further in this process, allowing for the fictionalizing of HHhH to become a part of the story rather than hidden under cover of history. So HHhH is as much about the story of Heydrich and the Slovak and Czech assassins recruited by the British secret service as it is about the story of Laurent Binet, by means both self-deprecating and humorous, rouging history’s cheeks.
I’ve been boring her for years with my theories about the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention, and she’s right, I suppose, not to let me get away with this skull thing. I thought I’d decided to avoid this kind of stuff, which has, a priori, no virtue other than giving a bit of color to the story, and which is rather ugly.
Too, this injection of Binet into the story of Heydrich, provoking the reader with his hemming and hawing over one detail or another, in some cases negating what he has written previously in favor of a new fact or a relegated instance from another source, is tickling history in a striking new way. HHhH comes to use Heydrich’s assassination as a means to ask of history: Can we ever fully know what took place outside of ourselves, in the finite moments of historical figures behind closed doors, where only second-hand accounts or educated guesses exist? And for Binet, at least as HHhH answers, we can never truly know the color in those cheeks, though we are desperate to texture them in our minds, to fictionalize our historical world so that it entertains and transports us, so that it rides (or writhes) on our pages as it does in our minds.
I defend myself halfheartedly: it’s more than likely that Himmler had some kind of headache, and anyway, this thing about the swelling brain is just a cheap metaphor with which to express his fear. But even I’m not convinced by this. The next day, I delete the sentence. Unfortunately, that creates an emptiness that I don’t like. I’m not sure why, but I’m not all keen on the segue from “smacked him in the face” to “He’s just heard the news.” Too abrupt: I miss the link provided by my skull metaphor. So I feel obliged to replace the deleted sentence with another, more prudent one. I write something like: “I imagine that his face, like a bespectacled little rat’s, must have turned red.”
HHhH is a masterpiece. It is epic in scope yet magnificently playful in tenor. The language is clean and readable and the episodes of Binet as a character within a story within one of the most significant historical moments of the Second World War is as innovative as it is lively, carrying the triumph of Heydrich’s assassination into a vibrantly real and human place. Along with Binet, we share in their triumphs, we extol their virtues, and we weep at their conclusions:
I am coming to the end and I feel completely empty. Not just drained but empty. I could stop now, but that’s not how it works here. The people who took part in this story are not characters. And if they became characters because of me, I don’t wish to treat them like that. With a heavy heart—and without turning it into literature, or at least, without meaning to—I will tell you what became of those who were still alive on June 18, 1942.