Laurent Binet’s HHhH Is a Thrilling Intertextual Adventure Story

View of Prague — Oskar Kokoschka

The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.

–Cormac McCarthy, interview in The New York Times, 1992.

Novelist’s personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.

–David Markson, The Last Novel, 2007

I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel.

–Laurent Binet, HHhH, 2010 / English trans. by Sam Taylor, 2012.

. . . it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is absolutely true.

–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990.

From the current (18 April 2014) Wikipedia entry for Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH:

HHhH is the debut novel of French author Laurent Binet. It recounts Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during World War II. It was awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman.

The novel follows the history of the operation and the life of its protagonists – Heydrich and his assassins Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. But it is also interlaced with the author’s account of the process of researching and writing the book, his commentary about other literary and media treatments of the subject, and reflections about the extent to which the behavior of real people may of necessity be fictionalised in a historical novel.

The title is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (“Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich”), a quip about Heydrich said to have circulated in Nazi Germany.

If I were the narrator of HHhH—which is to say, if I were a version of Binet, a version that I might describe (and am describing, I guess) as Binet-the-writer-performing-Binet-the-author-performing-Binet-the-author-as-narrator-narrating-the-author-trying-to-write-HHhH (awful description)—if I were the narrator of HHhH I’d probably now dole out a droll little chapter about how the gesture I’ve just committed (lazily using Wikipedia to summarize the novel and prefacing that lazy summary with a few citations that might make cribbing from Wikipedia seem, I dunno, clever (which I do not think said cribbing is))—If I were the narrator of HHhH I might riff on how what I just did  is the result of some kind of 21st-century paralysis induced by an overload of information combined with a deep sincere genuine honest-to-gawd love for my subject.

Or maybe I’d just claim to be writing an infrareview.

Has this been a bad start?

I think HHhH gets off to a bad start, but I could be wrong.

Maybe you should judge for yourself, dear reader. Here is its first paragraph:

Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

Actually, rereading it now, this seems like a perfect start, although I’ll admit it stalled me on the first few attempts. I mean, that’s a bit alienating, yes? Names, dates, places—and then a shift to Kundera, the immediate assault on fiction? But it fits, in retrospect. Maybe this is another way of saying that HHhH, despite a difficult first few chapters (What is the book aboutWhat is the book?) quickly becomes thrilling, engrossing, a cerebral spy novel, a study in power and terror, a love letter to Prague, a moody bit of flanerie, at times—and mostly an intertextual adventure yarn that shouldn’t work but does, that succeeds wildly.

In chapters that are often short, punchy, and precise, Binet spends much of the first part of the novel building the character of Reinhard Heydrich, “‘the Hangman,’ ‘the Butcher,’ ‘the Blond Beast.” Binet’s Heydrich is fascinating but never sympathetic, a psychological portrait that Binet draws in spite of himself. The author’s radical ambivalence is evident in two early consecutive chapters, which are worth sharing in full, I think, as they illustrate both Binet’s prose as well as his program. Chapter 16:

Little Heydrich—cute, blond, studious, hardworking, loved by his parents. Violinist, pianist, junior chemist. A boy with a shrill voice which earns him a nickname, the first in a long list: at school, they call him “the Goat.” At this point in his life, it is still possible to mock him without risking death. But it is during this delicate period of childhood that one learns resentment.

And Chapter 17:

In Death Is My Trade, Robert Merle creates a novelized biography of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, based on firsthand accounts and on notes that Höss himself wrote in prison before being hanged in 1947. The whole of the first part is given over to his childhood and his unbelievably deadening upbringing at the hands of an ultraconservative and emotionally crippled father. It’s obvious what the author is trying to do: find the causes, if not the explanations, for the path this man would later take. Robert Merle attempts to guess—I say guess, not understand—how someone becomes commandant of Auschwitz.

This is not my intention—I say intention, not ambition—with regard to Heydrich. I do not claim that Heydrich ended up in charge of the Final Solution because his schoolmates called him “the Goat” when he was ten years old. Nor do I think that the ragging he took because they thought he was a Jew should necessarily explain anything. I mention these facts only for the ironic coloring they give to his destiny: “the Goat” will grow up to be the man called, at the height of his power, “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.” And the Jew, Süss, will become the Great Architect of the Holocaust. Who could have guessed such a thing?

Throughout HHhH, Binet-the-narrator repeatedly voices his concerns for spending so much time on Heydrich; these anxieties are frequently tethered to other texts (as we see both in the first paragraph of the novel, and in the first line of Chapter 17). It’s not just that the Nazis in particular were such fastidious record-keepers (“The Nazis love burning books, but not files”); it’s also that WWII has arguably produced more literature—narrative entertainment!—than anyone could hope to wade through.

But Binet-narrator assures us he’s waded, especially into territories where Heyrdrich might show his yellow head. Blazoning an often truculent anxiety of influence, the narrator of HHhH reflects and opines on numerous Nazi narratives, from Kenneth Brannagh’s role as Heydrich in Conspiracy to Rutger Hauer in Twilight of the Eagles (adapted from a Robert Harris novel, it sounds like a ripoff of PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones to William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Binet also lards the novel with historical documents, like journal entries, newspaper records, excerpts from speeches, etc., along with rumor and speculation. He often crams a story or an anecdote into HHhH that he claims has no business there, like the (apocryphal?) tale of a soccer match between occupied Ukraine and the Nazis:

. . . none of the main characters of Operation Anthropoid is involved, so theoretically it has no place in my novel. But one of the great advantages of the genre is the almost unlimited freedom it gives the author.

This kind of bait and switch is characteristic of HHhH, and it should be annoying as hell. But for some reason it isn’t—just the right amount of restraint? Just the right note of ironic dissonance? I’m not sure. Binet’s earnest pleas that he wishes to do justice to the reality of his characters can become overbearing at times, but the earnestness is tempered in a kind of postmodern distance. But maybe I brought that with me. (Although of course the reader bears some responsibility, especially in such an intertextual reading).

Binet-as-narrator pleads at the gaps in history:

My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.

But of course the rhetoric here, the language itself, is a contrivance, a making, a bit of artifice—a decision. And, near the end of HHhH, exhausted from witnessing, from channeling that witnessing:

Worn-out by my muddled efforts to salute these people, I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don’t speak of them.

Binet-as-narrator overestimates his powers if he thinks that he allowed those anonymous deaths. But his creation does not stink of hubris.

No, what happens here—and gosh darn, I’ve really failed to describe it adequatley—what HHhH ultimately offers is the very thing it sets out to deconstruct: A ripping, gripping adventure yarn. The final sequence—I really want to just lay it all out here, now, but c’mon, spoilers! You should read this book!—the final sequence deserves more than the review-hack cliches I’ll rest on here: Breathtaking, spellbinding, engrossing, thrilling, etc. Just wonderful, and Binet knows it, stretches it out, repeatedly gnashes and wails that he doesn’t want it to end, and for good reason—it’s really damn good.

I listened to Audible’s unabridged version of HHhH, narrated by John Lee (and then reread sections at night on my Kindle). Lee’s been a dealbreaker for me in the past (I barely made it through his narration of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and gave up on his take on China Miéville’s Kraken), but his evocation of the narrator’s voice here is perfect—intelligent, slightly ironic. Perhaps it helps that Binet is unequivocal about his characters’ voices (which are rare in the novel)—he’s always pointing out, Hey, look hereI’m the ventriloquist! I looked forward to the narrative in my commute and often lingered over chores to listen longer. Great stuff.

Is HHhH an infranovel? I don’t know because I don’t know really what Binet means by “infranovel.” It is an entertaining and smart take on a worn-out genre though, which is more than enough. Recommended.

“Now I Was a Great Squid God” — A Weird Passage from Jonathan Littell’s Weird Novel, The Kindly Ones

I’ve been listening to  an audiobook of Jonathan Littell’s strange novel about an SS officer, The Kindly Ones, and this passage made me dig out my paperback copy in order to share the weirdness—

Finally I dozed off and had a strange, striking dream. Now I was a great Squid God, and I was ruling over a beautiful walled city of water and white stone. The center, especially, was all water, and tall buildings rose up all around. My city was peopled with humans who worshipped me. I had delegated part of my power and authority to one of them, my Servant. But one day I decided I wanted all these humans out of my city, at least for a while. The order went out, propagated by my Servant, and immediately droves of humans started fleeing out the gates of the city, to wait in hovels and shantytowns out in the desert beyond the walls. But they didn’t leave fast enough to my liking, and I began to thrash violently, churning back up the water of the center with my tentacles, then coiling them back and bearing down on swarms of terrible humans, lashing out and roaring with my terrible voice: Out! Out! Out!” My Servant ran frantically about, commanded, guided, prompted the sluggish, and in this way the city emptied out. But in the buildings closest to the walls and farthest from the water where I was giving vent to my divine rage, some groups of humans were not heeding my commands. These were foreigners, not really aware of my existence, of my power over this city. They had heard the evacuation orders, but thought them ridiculous and were ignoring them. My Servant had gone to see these groups one after another, to convince them diplomatically to leave: such as this conference of Finnish officers, who protested that they had rented teh hotel and conference room and paid in advance, and wouldn’t leave just like that. With them, my Servant had to lie skillfully, explaining for instance that there was an alert, a grave security problem, and that they had to evacuate for their own safety. I found this deeply humiliating, since the real reason was my Will; they were supposed to leave just because I wanted it, not because they were coaxed. My rage increased. I thrashed about and roared more violently than ever, sending great waves crashing through the city.