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.

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