Book Review: Laurent Binet’s HHhH
A fictionalised biography of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich that pays tribute to real-life unsung Czechoslovak heroes
Resisting the Gestapo
On 27 May 1942, Reinhard Heydrich lay in the Na Bulovce Hospital in Prague with a broken rib, a perforated diaphragm, a damaged thoracic cage and with the fragment of a black Mercedes lodged in his spleen.
Or was it a green Mercedes? This kind of detail matters to Binet, and he tells us that it does, extensively, just as he tells us about his indecision over whether to fork out €250 for Lina Heydrich’s memoirs, his romantic problems and his anxieties over the ethics of fictionalising history:
"It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene already littered with incriminating evidence."
A week after his ambush by two Czech resistance fighters, the Nazi security chief will be dead, killed by the sepsis spread through his body by this very same fragment, and his assassins will be hiding in the crypt of the Karel Boromejsky church awaiting a denouement that will involve 800 SS Stormtroopers.
All this Laurent Binet’s Prix Goncourt-winning HHhH recounts, but it’s what the young novelist does along the way that has garnered this unusual book so much attention, good and bad. As James Lasdun puts it in The Guardian: "Is the corpse-strewn story of Heydrich’s ascent to head of the Gestapo and "Protector" of annexed Czechoslovakia in any significant way enriched by its author’s playful anxieties about his girlfriend, musings on his dreams, or even by his more obviously pertinent struggles over whether to invent the dialogue or imagine the inner feelings of his real-life characters?"
HHhH is about Operation Anthropoid, and Binet sets out to pay tribute to the heroes of "one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history." In 1942, Czechoslovakia’s position in the eyes of the Allies was precarious. London constantly evaluated the contribution to the war effort made by the underground movements in occupied countries and, since Heydrich’s appointment as the interim Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech Resistance had been practically non-existent. This put the exiled President Beneš in an uncomfortable position: Even if the allies were victorious, Britain would not want to discuss revoking the Munich agreement.
A dramatic gesture was needed to reassert Czechoslovak patriotism. And so it was that Jozef Gabčík (a Slovak) and Jan Kubiš (a Czech) were chosen to embark on a mission which, as both knew from the outset, left only the most infinitesimal chance that they would come out alive.
The book opens with a lyrical description of Gabčík lying alone in a darkened room in the Prague apartment where he lived in hiding, listening to the creaking of the No. 18 tram as it stops in front of the botanical gardens. Binet immediately pulls back from his own literary action:
"If I put this image on paper, as I’m sneakily doing now, that won’t necessarily pay tribute to him. I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? ...I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind."
This effectively sets the tone for the rest of the book, a collection of 257 vignettes, some several pages long and some no more than one line, taking in Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubis and the historical space between them as it closes in and into the point of impact: a Mercedes moving inexorably towards a bend in a road outside Prague and two men standing on either side of that road, waiting.
To give an idea of the variety of these vignettes, one half-page sketch imagines the little Heydrich and his father poring over a map of Europe and reacting to the news that Kaiser Wilhelm II has abdicated; another, the future Slovak President Jozef Tiso pledging his allegiance to Germany. One nail-biting episode recreates the clandestine train-journey through Nazi Germany of Colonel Moravec, the exiled head of the Czechoslovak secret services, on his way to set up the resistance networks in Prague. Binet skips around in his efforts to pursue "the chain of causality back into infinity" but there is nonetheless something relentless and chronological in these reflections, the pace of a thriller as the work moves towards its "bravura moment, its scene of scenes."
The title of the book derives from a saying supposedly popular in the SS: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich – Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich; accordingly, and despite Binet’s avowed focus on the two Czech parachutists, the figure of Heydrich dominates the book. Binet takes us through his boyhood, his enlistment in and later expulsion from the German navy; his meeting and courtship of his future wife, Lina; his enrolment in and rise through the ranks of the SS; his promotion, aged only 30, to Gruppenführer, a rank equivalent to major general; his arrival in the Czech capital; and his enforcement of the regime that would earn him the nickname "The Hangman of Prague." His roles in the key atrocities of the era, from Kristallnacht to the Final Solution itself, take up a substantial part of the narrative.
"I’m all too aware that my two heroes are late making their entrance," Binet says some way into the book. "Perhaps this long wait in the antechamber of my brain will restore some of their reality, and not just vulgar plausibility. Perhaps, perhaps… But nothing could be less sure! I’m not scared of Heydrich anymore. It’s those two who intimidate me."
Some of Binet’s external characterisations can seem tiresome in their flippancy: Röhm is a pig, Himmler a hamster; Heydrich is "horsey". But accusations that Binet disrespects his subject matter, appropriating it as a vehicle for his own particular brand of post-modernism showiness, miss the point. His reflections and anxieties reveal humility rather than arrogance, a genuine feeling of inadequacy and awe in the face of the events.
"I wish to pay my respects to these men and women: That’s what I’m trying to say, however clumsily."
In the end, HHhH stands up as a moving, far-ranging and insightful testament to times and events of which, to make full sense, would be to misunderstand.
by Laurent Binet
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Harvill Secker, London (2012)