Thursday, August 2, 2012

Wrestling With Truth: HHhH by Laurent Binet

by Laurent Binet
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Sam Thomas

Laurent Binet’s historical novel HHhH (Himmler’s Hird heist Heydrich, or “Himmler’s brain is named Heydrich”) is among the most original and frustrating books of 2012.  It is a story about the past and at the same time about the difficulties that authors face any time they try to write about the past.

In order to address both of these questions, Binet interweaves two narratives.  The first is a straightforward thriller as we follow two members of the Czechoslovakian resistance, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, as they flee the Nazi occupation and then return as commandos intent on assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, one of the chief architects of the Holocaust and a Nazi governor known variously as “the Blond Butcher” and the “Hangman of Prague.”  The less conventional narrative tells of Binet’s desperation not just to tell Gabčík’s and Kubiš’ story, but to do so in a way that does his protagonists justice.  Binet confronts this challenge in the opening paragraphs when he notes, “I am reducing this man [Gabčík] to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do?”

As both a historian and a writer of historical fiction, this is where I first balked at Binet’s premise.  In what way does writing about a real person vulgarize him?  Why must the transformation from history to literature be ignominious?  While this sort of corrosion is possible, it hardly seems inevitable.  Indeed, one could argue that a skilled writer can (and should!) add texture and depth to an otherwise uninspiring historical figure.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of HHhH is that Binet manages to keep the reader in suspense despite the fact that it is clear from the outset that Operation Anthropoid succeeded: Gabčík and Kubiš did indeed kill Heydrich.  Nevertheless, my heart raced as the assassins approached their target, and I gasped in dismay when Heydrich appeared to escape with minor injuries.  What? I cried.  But they killed him!  You told me that they killed him!  (Rest easy: As we shall see below, Binet is far too concerned with historical accuracy to twist history to such a degree that Heydrich survives.)  The suspense thus lies not just in the success or failure of the plot, but in how the assassins managed to complete their mission.

The suspense in Binet’s second narrative – about his own struggles to tell the truth about the past – is more difficult to sustain and (as he would freely admit) his success is more difficult to judge.  Gabčík and Kubiš can point to Heydrich’s corpse and (justifiably) say, “Mission accomplished.”  Binet has only a book, but who is to say whether HHhH captures the reality of Operation Anthropoid?  And while Binet’s struggles are less compelling than Gabčík’s and Kubiš’ (how could they be otherwise?) they prove thought-provoking and provide more laugh-out-loud funny moments than you’ll find in an entire library of WWII thrillers.

The key question that Binet wrestles with as he writes is the definition of “truth,” and over the course of the novel we witness the slow evolution in his understanding of what it means to tell the truth about history.  At times this journey is excruciating, as when he obsesses about the color of Heydrich’s Mercedes (Was it black or dark green?), and whether Gabčík preferred coffee or tea (Why should I care?).  There are also moments when the circles into which he writes himself are quite amusing, as when he describes the German occupation of Prague:
      At 9:00 a.m., the first German tank enters the city.
      Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague. The most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars.
      So: at 9:00 a.m., German soldiers on motorbikes enter the Czech capital.

At another point he writes a lovely description of a character’s departure from his hometown, and immediately retracts it as impossible in light of more recent research.  These moments of discovery and visible revision are the most striking passages in the book.

But at other times Binet seeks poignancy and gets himself in to a bit of trouble, as when he laments his inability to give voice to the thousands of Czechoslovakians who died in the aftermath of Heydrich’s assassination:
      No reader could possibly retain this list of names, so why write it? For you to remember them, I would have to turn them into characters. Unfair, but there you go. I already know that the Moraveks, and perhaps the Farfeks will find a place in my story. The Svatošes, the Novaks, the Zelenkas – not to mention all those whose names or existence I’m unaware of – will return to their oblivion…One day, perhaps, someone in need of solace will write the story of the Novaks and the Svatošes, of the Zelenkas and the Fafeks.

The problem here, of course, is that Binet seems as intent on generating as much sympathy for his own need for solace as for the plight of his doomed characters.  This is a difficult (not to mention morally suspect) task, and one that is not particularly successful.

Binet’s problem seems to be that for most of the book he confuses factual accuracy with historical truth and he really should know better.  Historians do not aspire to include every detail; so much less so authors of historical fiction.  As Natalie Zeamon Davis pointed out in Fiction in the Archives, in many cases the purpose of telling a story is to arrive at a moral rather than a factual truth, and from a moral perspective, the color of Heydrich’s car matters not one whit.

The key moment in Binet’s search for historical truth comes when he discovers that while writing his own work of historical fiction, Gustave Flaubert suffered from a similar angst and concluded that, “Our worth should be measured by our aspirations more than our works.”  Tongue firmly in cheek, Binet comments, “That means I’m allowed to make a mess of my book.  Everything should come together more quickly now.”  And from this point Binet makes his peace with being “a skillful cheat.  A trickster.  Well…a novelist, basically.”  But as before, this characterization of what a novelist does rather misses the point.  A work of fiction can tell the truth about the past, even if it fails to note the precise color of Gabčík’s eyes.  That's not cheating – that’s literature.

Ultimately, Binet seems unable to let the novelist (or trickster) run free.  While the final chapter allows Gabčík and  Kubiš to exist on the page as they may never have done in real life, even this is a qualified victory, for he cannot resist inserting himself (and his girlfriend, Natacha!) into the story just as he has for the previous three hundred pages: “A young woman who looks like Natacha stands on deck, her hands on the railing, one leg bent up at the knee, playing with the hem of her skirt.  And me?  I am also there, perhaps.”  This final erosion of the boundary between author and text might signal his acceptance that there is a place for fiction in the writing of a historical novel.  But I think it would be more accurate to say that it’s simply a final example of Binet’s inability to disentangle his own quotidian struggles from the far more daunting challenges faced by his characters.

Oddly enough, all of this is not to say that HHhH is a bad book, simply a deeply problematic one.  At times Binet’s prose is luminous, and the back-and-forth movement between past and present can be a great deal of fun.  For those who read, write, or think seriously about the past, Binet’s work raises important questions about the boundary between fact and fiction, and the author’s obligations to his characters.  And even if his answers are not always satisfying, his struggles mirror our own, and we are free to come up with our own solutions.

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale, a historical thriller coming from Minotaur Books in January 2013.  He has a PhD in history with a focus on Reformation England and currently teaches at a secondary school near Cleveland, Ohio.

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