HHhH

Laurent Binet

HHhH

Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi secret services, 'the hangman of Prague', 'the blond beast', 'the most dangerous man in the Third Reich'. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says 'Himmler's brain is called Heydrich', which in German spells HHhH. All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? 3.8 out of 5 based on 14 reviews
HHhH

Omniscore:

Classification Fiction
Genre General Fiction
Format Hardcover
Pages 336
RRP
Date of Publication May 2012
ISBN 978-1846554797
Publisher Harvill Secker
 

Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi secret services, 'the hangman of Prague', 'the blond beast', 'the most dangerous man in the Third Reich'. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says 'Himmler's brain is called Heydrich', which in German spells HHhH. All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up?

Reviews

The Times

Chris Power

Binet indirectly acknowledges his stylistic inspiration on the book’s first page, when he paraphrases Milan Kundera. In constructing a novel from essayistic, autobiographical and historical fragments, Binet is taking to extremes the method the Czech writer developed after emigrating to France in 1975. But while Kundera’s work positions history as a malignant force, for Binet is it something to be respected because: “We build ourselves with memory and console ourselves with memory” ... Very few page-turners come as smart and original as this.

14/04/2012

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The New Statesman

Rosie Goldsmith

[Binet's] witty too and enjoys pricking the pomposity of historical figures: Chamberlain is "vile and stupid" and Heydrich has a "horsey face, high-pitched voice, well-polished boots". But underpinning it all, there’s serious analysis and new insight into events, such as the Babi Yar massacre, Heydrich’s death and the stand-off in the Prague church when the two heroes are cornered and later die.

17/07/2012

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The Daily Telegraph

David Annand

If this sounds pompous, the book certainly isn’t: it achieves a playful lightness with its comic updates on the state of Binet’s relationship and its bruising analysis of other accounts of the period. And it is conventionally successful too, as both a gripping thriller and a moving testament to the heroes of the Czechoslovakian resistance. Their mission reset the path of history. Binet’s resets the path of the historical novel. He has a bright, bright future.

03/05/2012

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The London Review of Books

Michael Newton

In maintaining a sense that events might still turn out otherwise, Binet pulls off the most difficult trick of the novel of historical reconstruction: we know the end, but grasp that the actors themselves do not, are still there, living through the possibilities of events. Binet’s novel is a belated entry in a long-standing debate in French literature about the value of violent resistance.

08/11/2012

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The Independent

Rebecca Armstrong

Binet is nothing if not knowing, with lines such as "I've been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination", and he is deft with his interjections. All this could be wearing, but Binet keeps his chapters short – and this dipping in and out of history gives HHhH an interesting pace. It's all very modern, but Binet is clever enough to tell a ripping yarn at the same time as giving us footnotes as to how he has done it.

18/07/2012

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The New York Times

Alan Riding

By placing himself in the story, alongside Heydrich and his assassins, the narrator challenges the traditional way historical fiction is written. We join him on his research trips to Prague; we learn his reactions to documents, books and movies; we hear him admit that he sometimes imagines what he cannot possibly know. And, in the end, his making of a historical novel brings a raw truth to an extraordinary act of resistance.

27/04/2012

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The Spectator

Anthony Cummins

Read it in French if you can. This translation changes Simone Veil to Simone Weil, Tunis to Tunisia, and Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent. Binet’s half-brother becomes a brother-in-law. Heydrich says 36 Jews were murdered on Kristallnacht, one more than stated previously. There are cuts as well as slips ... Far better to have HHhH in English than not at all, of course, yet more could have been preserved, in terms of tone as well as detail.

12/05/2012

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The Guardian

James Lasdun

There are crucial logistical points to be reckoned with, such as the topography of Prague streets or the disconcerting jamming tendency of the British-built Sten gun. Binet manages it all with beautiful lucidity, and by the time you reach the book's devastating finale, it's this discreet storytelling mastery, rather than the more grabby po-mo flourishes, that leaves the deepest impression.

16/05/2012

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The Independent on Sunday

Leyla Sanai

His determination not to fall back upon his imagination becomes a recurring theme, his interjections obstructing the flow of a mesmerising true story. While making reference to other books, he often sneers at their improvisation. Yet he does the same, surmising details that he can't have known. For example: "the commissioner approached, smiling". Occasionally, he chastises himself for fabrication, but one suspects that these wrist-slaps are only intended to remove him from suspicion elsewhere ... Binet's short chapters – there are no page numbers, just brisk, harrowing chapters – are conducive to his style of snappily dispensing nuggets of information in lucid prose. Despite his fussing about the nature of historical fiction, this is mesmeric stuff; history brought to chilling, potent life.

27/05/2012

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The Financial Times

Sam Leith

Anyway, after a lot of solemn metafictional/infrafictional hand-wringing while Heydrich’s back story is put in place, the plot proper gets going and things take a pleasingly thrillerish turn. And it really is a remarkable story – immersively realised in the closing sections of the book. For many readers that will be what saves HHhH from being ZZzZ but I doubt that’s what won him the Goncourt ... clever, occasionally funny, a little bloodless, and self-regarding in the fullest sense of the term.

09/06/2012

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The New Yorker

James Wood

But do Binet’s announced scruples produce a form of historical writing that is morally superior, in its air of confession and atonement, to the contrivances of the average historical novelist? I am not sure. HHhH is certainly more interesting than most of its conventional rivals, but it also seems shallower than its more distinguished rivals ... If Binet is as doubt-filled about fiction, and as passionate about historical witness, as he says he is, the scrupulous response would be to refrain from writing fiction, or to do a kind of historical research that is not attempted here.

21/05/2012

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The Los Angeles Times

Carolyn Kellogg

There is ... a sliver of emptiness in the heart of this passionate book. As a result of his distaste for unnecessary invention, Binet creates characters that 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, tried to invent what they're thinking?

24/06/2012

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The Sunday Times

Tom Deveson

There are more than 250 sections, some lasting a couple of lines, some a few pages. They are used to build and relax tension, and to flicker between perspectives as in a good thriller. But Binet claims to do much more, and the events themselves are too immense to be compromised by his admixture of solipsism and triviality. “If only I could have saved him,” he writes of Kubis. He hasn’t earned the right to such hyperbole.

06/05/2012

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The Literary Review

Frederic Raphael

What makes the novel unendurable, aside from the banal narrative devices, is - certainly in translation - the thesaurus of platitudes: 'tender care', 'passionate affair', 'parted effusively', 'dumbstruck and goggle-eyed', 'swashbuckling reputation', 'hums with conspiracy', 'stunned silence', 'flying colours', 'bombshell rocks Europe [the Anschluss]', 'spreads like wildfire', and so on. Had enough? If not, there are plenty more to truffle for.

01/05/2012

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