HHhH: "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich," or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." The most dangerous man in Hitler's cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the "Butcher of Prague." He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible - until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service - killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of History.
Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet's captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich's car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church.
A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet's remarkable imagination, HHhH- an international best seller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman - is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history.
©2009 Editions Grasset et Fasquelle. Translation from the French copyright 2012 by Sam Taylor (P)2012 Tantor
"This fluid translation by Taylor is a superb choice for lovers of historical literary works and even international thrillers. Most highly recommended." (Library Journal)
“Captivating . . . [HHhH] has a vitality very different from that of most historical fiction.” (The New Yorker)
“[HHhH is] a marvelous, charming, engaging novel.” (Los Angeles Times)
Imagine, if you will, picking up Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and being confronted with passages like, "And so Napoleon decided to invade Russia. Or at least, that's what I think he decided. I wasn't there, so I can't exactly read his mind. All I can do is tell you that he did invade Russia, which is the story I'm going to write about. But it's hard to concentrate on that story just now, because I'm equally fascinated with the lovely, blonde, 20 year-old stenographer I just hired, and she's a tremendous distraction."
That is more or less what one really finds upon commencing this story of how two expatriates parachuted into Nazi-held Czechoslovakia and managed to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most vital -- and evil -- men in the Reich. It's a worthwhile story, but sadly Laurent Binet's history -- or novel about someone trying to write this history -- or very long diary entry about himself (it's a little hard to say which) only occasionally wanders over to tell that tale.
Binet begins by giving an account of why he decided to tell the story -- he was, he says, captivated by the notion of Jozef Gabcik, one of the two men, lying on his bed and listening to the trolleys outside, as the moment approached when he and his partner would strike at the man known as "the Hangman," "the Butcher of Prague," and "the Blond Beast." And it seems like this is a forward, giving the author's motivations for writing this book before it begins.
Unfortunately, the ENTIRE BOOK reads like this, and it becomes hard to tell after a while if this is supposed to be a serious history of the Heydrich assassination or a first-person account of an author struggling with his muse. In a strange way, it's vaguely reminiscent of a 1976 documentary, "All This and World War II," possibly the only "historical" account stranger than Binet's, which presented World War II newsreels, one after another, set to Beatles music!
Binet's approach is hardly less bizarre, though, than that "battles and Beatles" account. And were that not strange enough, consider annoyances like this: at one point, we're told that the head of British Intelligence was referred to as "M," "just like in the James Bond novels." And that, somewhat in homage to that, Heydrich liked to be referred to as "H." But then a little later, Binet admits that he's been "talking rubbish," and that the head of British Intelligence was actually referred to as "C." And that Heydrich actually liked to refer to himself as "C," too, not "H." How does an author (let alone his editor) justify wasting his reader's time with nonsense like that? And after a time, how can the reader trust anything that Binet says?
It really is unfortunate, because the story of Gabcik, his compatriot Jan Kubis, and the rest of the people who bravely stood up to the Nazi state to help rid the world of a truly evil man is fascinating, and worthy of a serious examination. But Binet's endless asides trivialize these heroes and the many martyrs he supposedly wants to honor, as his narrative gives them more or less the same prominence as his tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend, or his fretting over whether to spend the money to buy the book written by Heydrich's widow.
What a shame to waste the talents of John Lee, one of the best narrators in the business, on this endless series of distractions. Rubbish, indeed.
Binet's struggle to find the truth, to accurately depict, to avoid sentimentality and cliche, to invent a new literary form, is as much a part of this gripping novel as the WW II villains and heroes he writes about. Usually intellectual exercises of this sort fail to engage the emotions, but that is not the case here. A beautifully crafted, heartbreaking, yet ultimately uplifting book, read by the always excellent John Lee.
SS general Reinhard Heydrich is one of history’s cruelest and most depraved actors. He’s rotten to the core, but Hitler and Himmler like him, so his power and opportunities are unlimited and he rejoices in using them. He was assassinated by two Czech resistance heroes in 1942 in Prague, and HHhH tells the chilling story of the assassination. But the book is more than a narrative of an event that has been extensively researched and retold: It also tells the tale of the author researching and writing the book, sort of a “play within a play.” I found this technique, in the hands of French author, Laurent Binet, extremely effective and interesting, but because it does interrupt the exciting narrative of the assassination plot itself, it was disliked by some reviewers. To me, however, Binet’s literary journey and ideas about historical fiction, complemented the narrative in chief and raised the book from a adventure tale, to literary fiction. It is not clear whether Binet’s part in the book is real or imagined, but it doesn’t matter, this is a terrific book either way. The superb reader greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book.
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