HHhH: A Novel by Laurent Binet
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This brilliant, Goncourt Prize-winning novel by French author Laurent Binet tells the story of two things: the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, and the telling of the story of the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. For me, this post- (or post-post) modern approach works very well with a historical story that is well known. The dramatic factor of any historical novel is compromised by necessary adherence to well-known facts, but Binet has found a clever way around that. Binet’s own research, opinions, and ruminations about writing the novel become a second focus, weaving in, out, and around the main narrative.
The author is at great pains to lay out his conception of the historical novel, and how he plans to address the challenge: “So I’ve decided not to overstylize my story. That suits me fine because, even if for later episodes I’ll have to resist the temptation to flaunt my knowledge by writing too many details for this or that scene that I’ve researched too much…” At one point, in the middle of the action, the author lays out a careful analysis of how he will and will not approach dialogue:
“There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue—reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history. In stylistic terms, this process has certain similarities with hypotyposis, which means making a scene so lifelike that it gives the reader the impression he can see it with his own eyes. When a writer tries to bring a conversation back to life in this way, the result is often contrived and the effect the opposite of that desired: you see too clearly the strings controlling the puppets, you hear too distinctly the author’s voice in the mouths of these historical figures.”
After a dramatic scene with Heydrich and one of his underlings, Binet stops the story to examine what he has just written, and enters into one of the many self-crtitiques throughout the course of the novel:
“The dialogue in the preceding chapter is the perfect example of the difficulties I’m facing. Certainly Flaubert didn’t have the same problems with Salammbô, because nobody recorded the conversations of Hamilcar, father of Hannibal. But when I make Heydrich say: “If you think you can make a fool of me, Naujocks, you’d better think again,” all I am doing is repeating the words as reported by Naujocks himself. You could hardly hope for a better witness, for reporting a phrase, than the only other person in the room, who heard it and to whom it was addressed. That said, I doubt whether Heydrich really formulated his threat in that way. It’s not his style. What we have here is Naujocks recalling a phrase years after the event, which is rewritten by whoever’s taking down his dictation, and then again by the translator. But Heydrich, the most dangerous man in the Reich, saying, “If you think you can make a fool of me, Naujocks, you’d better think again” … well, it’s a bit lame.”
Some critics have found this irritating, but I found it to be absolutely perfect. This isn’t a Ludlum adventure story: it’s a meditation on an act of heroism, and a meditation on the act of memorializing that act. I found the novel to be intelligent, invigorating, and extremely effective. Highly recommended.
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