In 1942, Czech Jan Kubiš and Slovak Jozef Gabčík were sent from London and parachuted secretly into Prague. Their mission: to kill Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Gestapo, widely considered in the SS to be the brains behind his superior (‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,’ they’d say – Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or HHhH). Laurent Binet heard this story as a child, and became more and more fascinated by it after going to Slovakia as a teacher, and finding the church crypt where Gabčík and Kubiš hid after their attempt on Heydrich’s life. In this novel, Binet tells the men’s story – but he also chronicles the process of research and writing, and the difficulties of making fiction out of real events.
This is a fascinating approach. Binet may present a scene that reads like historical fiction, then unpick it in the next chapter, asking how much he can really be sure about, what he may have left out or glossed for the shape of his story. It has the effect of creating tension even when you know broadly where the history is heading, because suddenly nothing is certain. Alongside this, as Binet tells of his time researching and writing HHhH, it too takes on something of the quality of fiction – and the lines between what’s real and what’s not are shown to be ever more blurred.
The prose in HHhH is often matter-of-fact rather than colourful. It’s not that Binet doesn’t do colour: there are some gripping passages of narrative as Gabčík’s and Kubiš’s mission reaches its climax (I must add here that Sam Taylor’s translation from the French is superb). Rather, I suspect that the more neutral tone represents Binet’s desire to remain true to the history (perhaps the change of tone towards the end is a recognition that he can’t do so completely). And I don’t find that tone dry, nor Binet’s interjections intrusive; HHhH works well as a whole, both as a tale of history and the pitfalls of telling it.
Any Cop?: If you’re in the mood for a novel which is as interested in examining what it’s doing as in portraying its historical subject, definitely give this a try.