Review: HHhH – Laurent Binet

Book review HHhH Laurent Binet

HHhH – Laurent Binet, Translated by Sam Taylor, Harvill Secker, 2012, First published in French in 2009

HHhH is an eye-opening book about the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, known as ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’, during World War II. Running alongside this fascinating account is the story of author Laurent Binet’s interest in this period of history, his writing, and his frustrations with the genre which look to constrain his book.

There are almost three stories running alongside each other in HHhH – the story of Heydrich, the two parachutists given the task of assassinating him, and the author Laurent Binet. The account of Reinhard Heydrich takes up a significant portion of the book, giving an eye-opening account of his role in the Nazi party. While Binet says that the book is about the men undertaking the assassination mission – called Operation Anthropoid – we need to know about Heydrich and the time period to fully understand the scale of the situation and the importance of their task. We are taken from Heydrich’s early life to his climbing of the ranks in the Nazi party to the atrocities committed under his orders. These accounts are harrowing and taught me much more about this period of history than I was ever taught at school.

We are then introduced to the assassination attempt. Operation Anthropoid is highly interesting and it’s clear from reading that Binet is desperate to do the men, and all the people who helped them, justice in the writing of his book. We feel the weight of expectation that he has placed on himself to get the story right, never leaving anyone or anything out. Sometimes we’re told things that probably aren’t necessary for the story, but their inclusion shows how exhaustive Binet has been in his research, and help to evoke this period of history. When we come to the assassination, Binet’s writing is at its best. While we can feel – and he openly tells us – his dread at having to finally write the scene, his writing is powerful, atmospheric, and adrenaline-filled.

The structure of HHhH is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Chapters concerning Binet and his writing of the book appear suddenly amongst the rest about the events of World War II, which took me a while to settle into. Sometimes, when a chapter suddenly shifts from talking about Heydrich to the concerns of the author, it’s a little disjointed and startling – I’m absorbed in history to be abruptly brought back to the present day and reminded of the author’s presence. But I think that Binet is as much a part of this book as everyone else included. We see plenty of Binet’s personality throughout (the translator, Sam Taylor, does particularly well to convey Binet’s nuances and turns of phrase), but this means that there isn’t the objectivity that I’d expect. He regularly describes people as vile, for example, which while I’m in no doubt that they were, makes the book more subjective in tone. The structure gives Binet space in the book which isn’t always available to writers of nonfiction and, while I struggled with this structure at first, I soon came to see its advantages. In the approach to the assassination attempt, for example, while his interruptions can be frustrating, they work well to slow the pace, pause time, and build tension around the climax of the book.

Reading seemingly chronologically as the book is written, Binet’s chapters are an interesting addition – it took the book away from simply being an account of the events of the period (even though I’d still have found this interesting) to a fascinating exploration of the writing process and the historical fiction and nonfiction genres. Throughout, Binet talks of the temptations to make a “story” or sensationalise events and invent scenes in the absence of hard facts. But it’s clear throughout that Binet doesn’t want to invent but relate the facts, and in doing so, he comes across as derisive of historical fiction. At times, he almost uses a superior tone when discussing why some historical fiction novels could be better and vehemently demonstrating his dislike for invention in the case of historical events, which didn’t always sit quite right with me. A sentence in Chapter 192 perfectly sums up his feelings about inventing scenes in history –

“It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.”

Yet, sometimes in the novel he does invent a scene which seems to undo his recent comments – until he admits that he’s ashamed of himself.

One aspect I found particularly interesting in the book is the idea that, while a writer may consider his readers when writing, Binet’s opinions mean that he can’t allow himself to change people’s names to make it less confusing, he can’t invent something to make the story “better”. As a writer, I also found it fascinating to read Binet’s process of writing the book and hearing his anxieties about the form and his finished work.

On reading HHhH, Binet has opened my eyes to an area of history which I knew little about. Multifaceted, original and innovative in its form, HHhH tells the fascinating account, not just of this period of World War II, but of the process of doing the event justice in writing.

Have you read HHhH? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below!

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