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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

HHhH: What Should Historical Fiction Be?

Laurent Binet's 2012 novel-like piece of writing, HHhH, is the story of Nazi monster, Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed the Butcher of Prague, and one of the main authors of the Final Solution. It's also the story of his assassination by Czech and Slovak freedom fighters. And, uniquely, it's the story of how Binet wrote the story itself.

Not really fiction, not really history, HHhH is a combination of and meditation on both. Binet tells his story in 257 "chapters" ranging in length from several pages to a single sentence. Binet's question for himself is this: When writing what is ostensibly a story, even though it's something that actually happened, can details be invented to help readability, drama, intrigue, etc.? He quickly decides the answer is "no," because doing so is a cop out, and unfaithful to history. Fiction should never win out, he says. To Binet, the issue, and what would be anathema to him, is turning the historical figures into run-of-the-mill "characters." And he doesn't want to do that, especially for Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the two men who kill Heydrich in Prague in May 1942, and who he comes to respect immensely.

This internal debate Binet has with himself is epitomized in a single detail: He doesn't know for sure whether the Mercedes Heydrich was riding in the day he was killed was black or green. He obsesses over this detail. Should he include that detail if he doesn't know for sure if it's accurate? Does it matter? Why does it matter?

If this sounds neurotic, and not-at-all interesting, you'll have to trust me that it actually very much is. Indeed, watching Binet argue with himself, and even at times admitting when he was wrong or when he couldn't resist making something up, is fascinating. Whether or not you agree with his theory (and if you love fiction, you can't, necessarily, because it pretty much renders all fiction moot), you'll enjoy the discussion.

And that's not even to mention the story itself, which is by turns riveting, and as dull as your 9th grade history class. Binet tells us about Heydrich's early life — but only briefly. He's more interested in Heydrich's climb to be Himmler's right-hand man. (HHhH stands for "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich," which, translated is "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.") Binet also spends a lot of time on pre-World War II geopolitics — why Hitler hated Czech president Edvard Benes so much that the mere mention of Benes' name would lead Hitler into a rage in which he'd drop to his knees and chew on the carpet. (HHhH is chock full of tons of these bits of amusing trivia.)

The story really kicks into high gear in the second half, though, as Binet picks up the story of the two assassins, sent from London (where Benes had sought asylum after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia) to score a victory for the Resistance by murdering Heydrich. The chronicle of the assassination, the escape, and the last stand in a church in Prague (this isn't a spoiler; it's included on the jacket copy) read as fast as any adventure story or spy novel you could find.

So, if, like me, you're a fan of historical fiction, history, fiction, the philosophy of writing fiction, or any combination therein, you'll probably dig this. Despite a few sags in the middle, this is a great read!

7 comments:

  1. Hi Greg, I'm a long time lurker, both here and at Book Riot.

    I'm also reading this, and am at the half way point. I'm quite liking it. I like when the author breaks the fourth wall so to speak, and talks directly to the reader. Although, I find the short chapters at times encouraging (moves along quickly) at other times, I seem to be easily distracted, (although that might just be life :)) I would definitely recommend this to many people, as it does cover all types of readering interests, but I don't see it winning the Tournament of Books. How do you see it faring?

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    1. Totally with you - sometimes the short chapters were an excuse to put the book down. But, like you, I liked the explicit author-reader dialogue. That was fun.

      Agreed. Not a good shot in the ToB - probably a first-round casualty. (We have a Book Riot post coming up about this in early Feb. Stay tuned!)

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    2. I love books about book making, and short chapters have never been a problem. If it's done well (Vonnegut, Borges short stories) it adds to the tone of the book.

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  2. I grabbed this one from the library without really knowing anything about it because I'm trying to read at least SOME of the ToB books this year. Your review has me more than intrigued, especially as I consider myself a fan of historical fiction, history, fiction, and the philosophy of writing. I'm running out of time to read before it's due back so I'm hoping there are renewals available!

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    1. And if there aren't renewals available, let's face it, I'll just buy a copy, because I am not opposed to owning more books.

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    2. It's a fairly quick read - and yeah, if you like all those things, the book will at least make you think. And you'll a learn a lot, too!

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  3. You make this sound quite intriguing. I do like historical fiction, but only when it's really well done.

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