Review: HHhH by Laurent Binet

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At the beginning of the year, I set myself a challenge of reading on average, one book each week on top of uni work. I’ve had a bit of intellect, a bit of memoir, a bit of classic fiction, a bit of shit pop-literature, a bit of it all. It’s all been pretty easy to lump into a category of sorts. However, last week’s read escaped this. HHhH is the first novel of French writer, Laurent Binet. I say novel, but it is not so simple as that. Based on a relatively unheard-of assassination known as ‘Operation Anthropoid’ which took place in World War II Prague, Binet follows, through his own research, two Czechoslovakian soldiers from their nomination to their deaths.

While HHhH is not a mere clinical documentation of historical facts, neither is it a wild dramatisation. Binet manages to present the facts, as he knows them, but with the flair of a novelist, authoring vivid descriptions of the target, Reinhard Heydrich, and the suspense that the two soldiers experience constantly evading the notorious SS. However, the book, with its intertwining and eventually converging storylines, is interspersed with personal snippets from Binet himself, depicting his own dilemma between sticking religiously to journalistic integrity and creating an entertaining story. He admits to embellishing some of the details – “If my dialogues can’t be based on precise, faithful, word-perfect sources, they will be invented.” – but only so as not to leave us with too many blanks in the course of the books; and he is meticulous about distinguishing between what he is reporting, and what he is creating.

What comes of this unique style is a fascinating read. Through Binet’s writing, I found myself determined to see the assassination attempt through to the end in the company of the two soldiers, simultaneously entertained and informed. This effect is almost certainly helped by the unusual format of the book: unlike every other book that I have ever read, HHhH does not have page numbers. If I were to guess, I would put it at about 300 pages long, and within those pages are no less than 257 chapters. Some are a sentence long, summing up substantial events with incredible and effective impact; while others are several pages long, going into intense depth about events which undoubtedly occurred over the course of a few minutes. Writing as he does, Binet creates suspense where appropriate and provides conciseness where necessary.

Were I to be asked what I thought about HHhH overall, the first thing that I would say is that you should not be put off by the fact it is a World War II novel based on fact. Such a description would usually signify 500 dreary pages of either blind hero-worship or blood-and-guts. That is not to say that Binet does not regard the actions of the two soldiers to be heroic; however, he is careful not to paint them as infallible and god-like. They are simply willing to at least attempt to rid Europe of a man who was on his way to manufacturing ‘The Final Solution’. If anything, they are victims of circumstance, thrown into a mission that they have almost no chance of accomplishing. And it is only by reading until the end that you discover whether or not they succeeded.

I think that the ultimate charm of HHhH is that ‘Operation Anthropoid’ is not really a commonly referenced event of World War II. As such, you are not only reading for the novel itself, but out of genuine interest to discover the outcome. While so much literature regarding the same period concerns itself with events that everyone knows the results of, and so is merely repetition, Binet’s novel allows itself some artistic licence, and justly so. By doing so, HHhH becomes a book that should by rights attract both those who are interested historically, and those who wish to be entertained. An absolutely superb piece of work.

HHhH was translated by Sam Taylor, and published in 2012 by Vintage Books.

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