HHhH is a book about the Second World War. Specifically about one of Hitler’s top lieutenants, Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague: the man who orchestrated Kristallnacht, established the Einsatzgruppen, chaired the Wannsee Conference, and was a driving force behind the Holocaust (and if you’re wondering, these are all bad things). Even more specifically, the book is about the breath-taking, desperate, suicidal mission taken on by two men – assassinating Heydrich, one of the most powerful and dangerous people in Europe. As well as all this, HHhH is a book about its author, about his struggle reconciling history with fiction, and about his obsession with the people whose story he is telling.
Laurent Binet encompasses a staggering breadth of information and detail in his novel, taking us through medieval Prague, Hitler’s rise in pre-war Germany, the beginning of the War and its progress in Europe up until 1942, the life and career of Heydrich and his assassins, as well as the actual focus of the book – the assassination attempt itself. He does this by flitting from moment to moment, pausing just long enough to show us a glimpse of what is happening each time, letting us peek at a fragment of a scene, before whisking us away onto the next. The scenes and moments themselves are portrayed in a variety of ways: some will be part of newspaper articles with brief, efficient explanation or comment by Binet; others will be painstakingly reconstructed scenes, thrown into relief with a style that is both stripped down and beautifully poetic, yet others will be written almost like a script, fast-paced dialogue often layered with some very black humour. These myriad scenes are all balanced masterfully, never too long or dense to bog you down, always playing off of other scenes from earlier in the book, building on one another and forming a picture that spans hundreds of years, hundreds of miles, and the lives of millions.
Throughout what amounts to the most engaging, extensive history lesson you’ve ever had, Binet hovers ever-present over your shoulder: interjecting with comments about the politics of the time; pointing out small details that, though functionally purposeless, are intriguing or funny; making copious reference to literary works, other writers, or films; obsessing over the importance of historical accuracy and the dangerous allure of being able to fictionalise the past; and correcting himself with profuse apologies over having mistakenly misnamed a minor character, or describing the colour of a car as black instead of green. His voice and his narration become one of the most important characters in the book.
All of this however, enjoyable as it may be to read, makes for a directionless novel, one that quickly loses sight of its original purpose and gets lost in exploring the dark recesses of history. Or it would, if it weren’t for Binet seeming to notice this and cutting himself off before his focus on the backstory devolves into rambling. All of this is done concurrent to the deluge of history that runs through the book, providing drips and drops of information as the plot crawls slowly but incessantly forwards, ramping up tension and providing the gripping, un-put-down-able factor that is key in any good story until, in the final third of the book, the tension is released in a hundred-or-so pages of glorious, absorbing action.
It is the conclusion of the book – where Binet shows us the actual assassination attempt and the insane events that spiral out of it – that raises the whole thing from good to great. Binet writes here with a passion and a fervour, a bloody single-mindedness that holds you enthralled. There are moments of cathartic, victorious joy and of gut-wrenching fear. An action sequence made all the more fantastic by its ridiculousness and by the knowledge that it actually happened, and one of the most harrowing, horrific stories you’ll ever read, all blended together into perfection (or as close as you can get).
HHhH is a truly wonderful book (the name, incidentally, comes from a saying popular in the SS: ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German forms the acronym H.H.h.H.), and one that you should definitely read. If you like history, you’ll love it, and if you don’t like history, this book will make you see the error of your ways. It is a novel of epic proportions, and yet it’s effortlessly readable, fast-paced, and not so long as to give War and Peace a run for its money (looking at you, fantasy novels). Pick it up, open it, read its first few pages and let yourself be swept up by Binet and his writing, by his loving portrayal of two under-appreciated heroes, his obsession with the powerful, moving stories that make up all of history, and his morbid fascination with a group of people who will forever and always be known as the worst people to ever walk the earth.
HHhH is written by Laurent Binet (2010) and was published in English in 2012.