Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Thursday, 26 April 2012

HHhH - Laurent Binet

'It's as if a Dr. Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature. Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.'

I was fascinated to read this book, having being a student of German history for several years. Sometimes a novel sits on your shelf and you're really not quite sure what it is going to be like when you open the cover and being to read. HHhH was such a book for me, because it tells a true story, contains real characters, and depicts actual historical events. Yet it is a novel. What will this reading experience be like, I wondered? The answer, for me, was fascinating, compelling and surprising. 

HHhH tells the amazing true story of 'Operation Anthropoid', when two heroic parachutists, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, one Czech and one Slovak, left Britain for Prague, with the task of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, the then 'Protector of Bohemia and Moravia', senior figure in the Nazi party, and 'principal architect' of the Final Solution, creator of the terrible, murderous Einzatzgruppen, he is the 'Hangman of Prague, whom the Czechs also nicknamed the Butcher,' 'the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.'

The title, HHhH, stands for 'Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich' in German: in English, this is translated as Himmler's brain is called Heydrich, because 'in the devilish duo he forms with Himmler, he is thought to he the brains.' Binet builds the story slowly towards the main event, and along the way he finds evidence of Heydrich's dark deeds and involvement almost everywhere: 'it's incredible. Almost anywhere you look in the politics of the Third Reich, and particularly among its most terrifying aspects, Heydrich is there - at the center of everything.'

What makes this book even more interesting than being just an engrossing, present tense retelling of this thrilling episode in history, and of events leading up to it, is that the author speaks directly to the reader throughout. He breaks into the narrative and tells us where he has hesitated, where he thinks he might have made a mistake, or is unsure about an event; 'I've been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination.' And, at another point, he tells us; 'that scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up.' He has described this himself as the reader receiving the equivalent of 'the movie, and the making of the movie', all at once. This conversational tone, and the honesty, made me smile at times. He also discusses previous literature on this event, and films that have portrayed Heydrich. 

This book made a real impact on me. It is fascinating from a historical perspective, in particular with regard to Czechoslovakia then, and there were many things I learned and people I now know about, like Beneš, and Colonel Moravec, the heroic Gabčík and Kubiš, and other heroes of the Czechoslovakian resistance like them. As Binet so eloquently writes, 'how many forgotten heroes sleep in history's great cemetery?' I didn't feel like I was reading a translation either. The style is an unusual construction, but for me it was highly effective and extremely engaging. It is a compelling, moving story. Brilliant.

Translated from the French by Sam Taylor. 
HHhH was the winner of the Prix Goncourt du premier roman (2010). 

Published by Harvill Secker on 3rd May 2012 .

Thank you very much to the publisher for sending a proof copy of this novel to read and review.

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