HHhH by Laurent Binet (translated from the French by Sam Taylor)
Back in August I was lucky enough to visit the stunning city of Prague, and I came up with the perfect book to read while there: HHhH by Laurent Binet, which deals with the Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic and which I had been wanting to re-read for a while. I have only a very hazy memory of reading it the first time – all I know is that I was a bit mystified by it and I’d never read anything quite like it. This time around, however, I came to fully appreciate what Binet achieves with this fantastic book.
HHhH is about Operation Anthropoid, a mission in which two Czechoslovakian parachutists are sent to Nazi-occupied Prague to assassinate the notorious Reinhard Heydrich. The book does not take the form of an ordinary narration; instead, it’s a postmodern novel concerned with the nature of historical fiction itself and the relationship between truth, fiction and memory.
For the most part, the book is grounded by the narrator, who writes about his research process and worries about conveying the exact truth and not turning the historical figures into mere characters. He is at times full of doubt about his capabilities; at other times, he is scathing about novels and films that attempt to address the same subject. He often jumps in with comments that serve to remind the reader of the dangers of fictionalising true events:
“I’ve been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination.”
These only serve to make the text seem more genuine, although it’s difficult to know how ‘constructed’ this effect is. I’m inclined to treat the narrator as an entirely fictitious creation, which would be an ironic twist given that the narrator is so scathing about “fudging reality”. As he points out, it is equally dangerous to assume that something truthful is fiction as it is to assume that something fictional is true. But the beauty here is that, whether the historical element is told through a fictional frame or not, those historical figures and their actions are absolutely true. It is this of which we have to be continually reminded. The narrator has to constantly point out that the characters were real people and that these things really did happen, because it is all too easy to absorb these things as narratives. Our brains are hardwired to seek out stories and to create characters from real people.
“I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.”
All in all, HHhH is a truly mind-blowing book. The guiding presence of the narrator, with his simultaneously humorous and poignant interjections, results in the emotional impact of the events magnifying in a way that a non-fiction book would be hard-pressed to achieve. I urge you to read it.
Written by Jenny Nicholls
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham