The year after I graduated college I had a job in a library. When people underlined passages in the library books, or made notes in the margins, the books were sent to me. I erased the lines and the notes. Yes, that was my job.
One of the books sent to me for erasure was called The Killing of Reinhard Heydrich, by Callum Macdonald. I’d never heard of Heydrich. He was a terrifying figure who administered Czechoslavakia for Hitler and generally loomed large in the Nazi pantheon. His nickname was the Butcher of Prague, and he was an absolute bastard.
The British parachuted two men into the country to assassinate him. They crept through the countryside to Prague and ambushed Heydrich in his Mercedes. A jammed gun almost derailed the attempt, but they managed to throw a bomb under his car, and the explosion blew fragments of horsehair into Heydrich’s body, from the upholstery. He died soon after of septicemia.
The story gets bleak from there. The Nazis went insane. They liquidated an entire town. A woman who’d sheltered the assassins escaped interrogation with a cyanide pill, but they tortured information out of her little son. The assassins were trapped in a church basement, which the Nazis flooded in an attempt to either drown them or force them out. In the end they committed suicide.
Needless to say, no more marginalia were erased that day. It’s a riveting historical episode. At the time I thought someone should turn it into an opera — The Death of Klinghoffer had just come out, and it had that tragic John Adams feel to it. That didn’t happen (because apparently Adams doesn’t take psychic orders from idle library flunkies), but it has been turned into movies and novels, multiple times. The latest rendering is the oddly named HHhH, by a French writer named Lauren Binet.
HHhH: it’s an acronym for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” meaning “Himmler’s brain is named Heydrich.” It’s a reference to the fact that Heydrich and Himmler were something of a power duo, and Heydrich was the brains of the pair; I guess that’s what passed for humor in the upper echelons of the Third Reich. It’s a strange choice for a title — it’s one of those stunt titles, like 1Q84. The Butcher of Prague would have done fine, or The Blonde Beast, which was Heydrich’s other nickname. But Binet couldn’t resist — and the book’s quirky, clever, stunt-yness is typical of what tempered with uneasiness my enjoyment of this otherwise smart and accomplished book.
HHhH arrives in America practically sagging under accolades: it won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, and it’s accessorized with blurbs from Mario Vargas Llosa, Martin Amis, Colum McCann, Wells Tower, David Lodge, and Gary Shteyngart, as well as three starred reviews in the trade press. Binet’s book tells the story of the assassination and, alongside it, or maybe enveloping it, his own story, the story of his obsession with the assassination and his struggle to write about it.
The narrator — who may or may not be entirely the same person as Binet — nurses a lifelong fascination with the story. He makes a pilgrimage to the scene of the assassination, and he reads and watches everything he can find that’s related to it and World War II in general. “Natacha [his girlfriend] tells me the date of her sister’s wedding,” he writes. “I yell cheerfully, ‘May twenty-seventh? Unbelievable! The day of the assassination!’” Natacha has a lot of patience.
Gradually Binet and/or the narrator starts to put the story down on paper. He lays out for us the lives of Heydrich and the two assassins, who were trained and dispatched by the British but were in fact a Czech named Kubis and a Slovak named Gabcik. But his efforts are hampered by the thinness of the historical record and by his extreme self-consciousness — his sense of the futility of his, or any, attempt to write history.
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He harangues the long-suffering Natacha with his doubts. He compulsively critiques other renderings of the assassination, and compares them to his own. He agonizes over conflicting accounts of the color of the fatal Mercedes — green, or black? A chance quote in a magazine makes him re-assess whether or not he as a foreigner can really write about Prague at all.
A scene describing Gabcik’s departure from his home town, which turns out to be largely invented, is followed by a paragraph of self-reproach: “How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet,” Binet writes, “a man who’s been dead for a long time, who can’t defend himself … I am ashamed of myself.” A conversation between Reinhard and his father is followed by a page-long caveat: “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.”
And so on. Binet reads Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, another WWII novel that won the Prix Goncourt, and wonders whether Littell really knew that a particular officer drove an Opel, or if he was just guessing. “Plausible is not known. I’m driveling, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.” He makes pretty sure that we see it.
Binet’s struggle with his historiographical demons becomes a meta-narrative, the narrative of the writing of the narrative. Unlike the main story, that meta-narrative has a more or less happy ending. Binet manages to swallow his doubts and get the story on paper: the frantic chaos of the assassination, the tense manhunt for the assassins, the unbearably sad, violent denouement, the Nazis’ disastrous reprisals. Binet makes a very perceptive and informed recording angel, one with an exceptionally clear and unfussy prose style (rendered extremely well by the translator, Sam Taylor). It doesn’t hurt that he has triple-A premium material, but Binet doesn’t push too hard to give the events a meaning. He lets them be the tragedy that they are, and as such they’re devastating.
Maybe inevitably, that tragedy is a lot more compelling than the meta-story of its composition, and at times one wishes that Binet had left more of that meta-stuff out, and given us the book with one fewer dimension. It’s not that I didn’t see the historiographical validity of Binet’s objections to his own project. It’s just that the struggles of a neurotic first-time novelist rather pale when placed in proximity with the struggles of people who are giving their lives, everything they have and are and ever will be, in the fight to save the future from Fascism. Who cares what color the Mercedes was, or whether Binet is getting along with the (“gorgeous,” he assures us) Natacha, when a genocide is in progress in the next storyline over? I often found myself repressing an urge to skim.
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Binet’s self-conscious narrator reminded me at times of the marvelously neurotic narrator of Nicholson Baker’s underrated U&I, his memoir of his obsession with John Updike. But you notice that when Baker wrote his book about World War II, Human Smoke, he stuck to primary sources only, and left himself out of it as much as possible.
It’s obviously not arrogance: Binet is nothing if not self-deprecating in his autobiographical cameos. But you don’t see me interjecting autobiographical asides into my reviews, like the fact that I wound up getting fired from that library gig for reading on the job. Well, I guess you do — I get it, it’s hard to resist. But sometimes one wishes for even more self-deprecation than that. When it comes to true humility in the face of history, nothing beats complete silence.