June 2012

Arts & Letters

'HHhH' by Laurent Binet

By Catherine Ford
'HHhH' by Laurent Binet, Harvill Secker; $32.95

Not too many first novels come at you like this one. Laurent Binet’s debut, based on the true story of the British and Czech mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi secret services, in Prague in 1942, is virtuosic, combative and impatient with fiction’s usual terms and conditions. It won France’s Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010 and attracted startling encomia from Martin Amis (“original and charming”) and Bret Easton Ellis (“blew me away”).

Binet’s provocative work plaits a tight braid from Heydrich’s grotesque inhumanity, the heroism of the assassins, and his own confessed struggle to serve historical fact in a fictional mode. “I wanted to tell the true story, including my own story,” Binet has said, in interview. “To write a novel with just one level, without a metafictional dimension, wouldn’t interest me very much.”

But when an author experiments with one of the greatest acts of resistance during World War II – an event of terrifying gravity – to interrogate, among other things, fiction’s legitimacy, the work tests not only tolerance but a reader’s conscience.

Binet’s research, prowess as a writer and diligence before the terrible moral weight of his chronicle are not in doubt; it’s the communication of these that feels contentious. “I was always annoyed,” Binet has said, “by teachers telling me to make the distinction between the author and the narrator.” The interjections of a disabusing authorial voice into the otherwise ‘seamless’ narration of HHhH, however, suggest the author was an attentive student.

In a characteristically witty, and infuriating, tease, Binet leads readers through 200 pages to the moment the assassins parachute into Czechoslovakia to kill Heydrich. What, we long to know, of that astonishing leap? What of the men’s state of mind? But Binet plays the fiction game only when he chooses; he cuts and runs here when we most want him, tossing down one miserable, passive-aggressive line, parked nakedly inside its own lonely chapter: “So,” he squibs, “to cut a long story short, they jumped.” Next chapter.

This is not history with footnotes and citations, but neither is it fiction hiding its inarguably corrupt relationship to truth. Binet’s narration is powerful and exhilarating, despite the questing authorial interruptions chipping at its authority. As to the examination of literary modes? It takes Binet 300 pages to lay down theory’s rusted tools and write, through a mortified exhaustion, “I wish to pay my respects to these men and women: that’s what I’m trying to say, however clumsily.” A simple, crystalline truth received with gratitude and relief.

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

From the front page

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

In This Issue

An Australian light armoured vehicle, Tangi Valley, Afghanistan, March 2011. © SPC Eward Garibay/ISAF

Winning Enemies

George Pell, Anzac service, 24 April 2009. © AAP/Jenny Evans

A New Opium

The Anzac cult

Panel from 'Sensitive Creatures'. © Mandy Ord

Memory Palaces

Australia’s budding graphic novel scene

Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies in STC's 'Big and Small'. © Lisa Tomasetti

She’s not there

The curious case of Cate Blanchett


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Steve Toltz

The quip and the dead: Steve Toltz’s ‘Here Goes Nothing’

A bleakly satirical look at death and the afterlife from the wisecracking author of ‘A Fraction of the Whole’

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

Still from ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’

One small step: ‘Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood’ and ‘Deep Water’

Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped film evokes the optimism of late-1960s America, while Patricia Highsmith’s thriller gets another disappointing adaptation

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, ‘Dibirdibi country’ (2008

Art heist: The landmark conviction of an Aboriginal art centre’s manager

The jailing of Mornington Island Art’s chief executive for dishonest dealing has shone a light on ethics and colonialism in the Indigenous art world


More in Noted

Cover of Robert Lukins’ ‘Loveland’

‘Loveland’

Robert Lukins’ second novel takes a Brisbane woman to Nebraska, where an inheritance sparks a change in character as well as in fortune

Still from ‘We Own This City’

‘We Own This City’

David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’, returns to Baltimore for a present-day examination of rapacious police corruption

Still from ‘Slow Horses’

‘Slow Horses’

A sardonic Gary Oldman heads a misfit branch of MI5 in Apple TV+’s thrilling exploration of personal motivation and political expedience

Image from ‘The Golden Cockerel’

‘The Golden Cockerel’

Barrie Kosky’s Adelaide production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera satirising the Russo-Japanese War came with uneasy resonances


Online exclusives

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history