No need for invention in gripping historical tale
Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 336 pp., $26
Laurent Binet tackles the story of a Nazi and the two Czechoslovakian war heroes who set out to assassinate him and writes a marvelous, charming, engaging novel. But he’s not quite sure how he feels about that.
The awkwardly titled “HHhH” won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, the debut-novel version of France’s highest literary prize. Binet is a history teacher who had previously published a memoir, and the very project of writing a historical novel sits uneasily with him, a tension that is an essential part of the book. “I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story,” he implores in the first chapter, “you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.”
That historical reality begins with Reinhard Heydrich, an early member of the SS whose attention to detail and unhesitant brutality swiftly moved him into positions of increasing power. He became head of the Reich security’s mammoth RHSA, which combined the SD, the Gestapo and the Kripo (espionage, political police and criminal police, respectively). Officially, he was Heinrich Himmler’s second in command, but the book’s title comes from a phrase tossed around in the SS, “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” -- “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”
Heydrich, who recruited Adolf Eichmann and led the Wannsee Conference, was the principal architect of the Nazis’ Final Solution. He brings the documents authorizing it to Hermann Goring to sign: “This is Karinhall, the little baroque palace that Goring had built to console himself after the death of his first wife....Goring stands waiting on the steps, his expression jolly, his body squeezed into one of those eccentric uniforms that have earned him the nickname ‘Perfumed Nero’.” This is characteristic Binet prose -- pulsing with life, lit by a wisp of dry humor, fully imagined.
And yet he doubles back in the next chapter, exposing his invention: “In the first draft, I’d written: ‘squeezed into a blue uniform’....It’s true that in photos Goring often sports a pale blue uniform, but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day.” Surely this is the kind of self-corrective that all authors of historical fiction practice but it’s not the kind of thing we usually encounter within the text.
Binet’s questioning remains present throughout the book, in short chapters interspersed within the story he’s telling. He reads and watches other fictions based on Heydrich and the assassination attempt -- often taking issue with their departures from the truth. A Frenchman, he explains his vivid descriptions of Czechoslovakia are because it is “the country I love most in the world.” And he airs his scorn for fictional inventions; they are “impudent,” “ridiculous” and “puerile.” He uses them, and he is “ashamed.”
In America, there’s a debate over the intersection of nonfiction and fiction in the conversation around February’s “The Lifespan of a Fact” by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. The argument goes something like this: Even in nonfiction, obstructive facts should give way before the needs of the art of the story.
Binet comes at it from exactly the opposite perspective: Even in fiction, the truth should be the dominant force. At one point he rues having to juggle four very different characters with virtually the same name. “This must be tiresome and confusing for the reader. In fiction, you’d just do away with the problem,” he writes, and change the names. “But of course I am not going to play that game.” For Binet, who is telling a story of a villain, heroes and a tragedy, the facts are more than enough. He laments not being able to fit more in.
The heroes, who wait offstage until midway through the book, are Jozef Gabeik, a Slovak, and Jan Kubiš, a Czech, both soldiers who went to England after their nation was overrun by Hitler. In a mission called Operation Anthropoid, they were trained and sent by the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile to assassinate Heydrich.
By that time, Heydrich had been made the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, a singularly ironic title that gave him dominion over Czechoslovakia. Gabeik and Kubiš parachuted behind enemy lines and spent months in the much-beleaguered underground resistance movement, waiting for a chance to get at Heydrich.
Having recently read about them in Madeleine Albright’s “Prague Winter,” I know what happened next, but the story may not be familiar to many American readers. Gabeik and Kubiš' effort was not a complete failure, nor was it a complete success. Miraculously, they both survived what was clearly a quixotic mission. The betrayal that led to their discovery, and the consequences for all involved, was heartbreaking. So too was the valor they showed when confronted by Nazi authorities. It’s no wonder that Binet believes the facts are enough; they are more than enough.
There is, nevertheless, a sliver of emptiness in the heart of this passionate book. As a result of his distaste for unnecessary invention, Binet’s characters lack dimension. Heydrich is thoroughly evil -- “I have trouble imagining Heydrich playing with his children,” Binet admits; in their heroism, the soldiers have no room for a flash of doubt, a wrinkle of imperfection. Would their stories be better told if he entered their minds and invented what they’re thinking?
Maybe not. “I make a quick inventory of all the times in my life when I’ve had to show sangfroid. What a joke! On each occasion, the stakes were tiny: a broken leg, a night at work, a rejection,” he writes. “How could I convey even the tiniest idea of what those three men lived through?”
It’s a convincing argument: that the job of the writer is to get at the truth and not presume to invent it. All you need is a good story, well told -- like “HHhH.”