HHhH by Laurent Binet (English Translation by Sam Taylor, 2012)
By Emily Ward
In the beginning of his historical novel, Laurent Binet warns the reader with a quote from Osip Mandelstam, “Once again, the writer stains the tree of History with his thoughts”. Yet, despite commencing his book with this ominous forewarning, Binet leaps straight into the fray to attempt to combine the composition of a novel with the approach of historical writing. And (in my opinion) he succeeds with style.
At the very core of the novel is the author’s desire to present a historically accurate narrative of the events of Operation Anthropoid, a mission organised to attempt the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi commander responsible for formalising the Final Solution. The narrative unfolds, therefore, on two fields. The first is concerned primarily with the events of the years 1940 to 1942. It involves an exploration of the backgrounds of the two main assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, and their prominent target, Heydrich. It culminates with the events of 27 May 1942 and the repercussions that followed. The second narrative, perhaps more unusually, concerns Binet himself. It is rare to read a novel where you come away with such an open insight into the author’s process of writing and potentially even a view into his psyche during the course of composition.
As a medieval historian reading the book, I perhaps had less sympathy for the author’s innate worry over specific facts, such as knowing whether the car Heydrich was driven in was black or dark green, but I certainly recognised and connected with the fanatical thirst for knowledge driving these worries. Binet’s book, and his struggle throughout, struck a chord with the life of a research student and accurately portrayed the way in which specific facts or stories on the edge of your research topic can thoroughly absorb you, almost to the point of obsession.
HHhH is consequently a novel which explores the very nature of ‘doing history’. Its reception – HHhH has won, among other awards, the 2012 New York Times Notable Book of the Year – has allowed the exploration of this idea in a public field of literature.
For those interested in novels regarding the history of Nazi Germany this book may already have caught your eye. But for those who may initially have dismissed HHhH due to its subject matter, I would highly recommend it both for raising interesting and pertinent questions about history as a discipline and also for its fascinating exploration of the process of researching and writing a historical novel.
Where to buy: All major book sellers.