Review: HHhH

Laurent Binet helpfully subtitles HHhH as “a novel,” but that’s probably intentionally misleading. It’s more of a book that intertwines a historical novel, with the commentary track of that novel, with the story of it being written.  That kind of thing can come off as too clever for its own good, but Binet remains engaging throughout.

The topic of this combination of introspection, research, and literary project is Operation Anthropoid, a WWII assassination carried out by Czechoslovakian resistance fighters trained in London by the Allies.  It is indubitably the stuff of high adventure.  Daring secret agents strike a symbolic and pragmatic blow against the mastermind of the Final Solution in their occupied homeland.  The stakes couldn’t be higher and there’s drama in both the execution and the aftermath.  Binet’s not the first to see the literary potential here.

This kind of story basically has to become a myth, but Binet – having set out to write about it – spends a lot of his time writing about how he wants to write about it and what others writing about it has meant.  He doesn’t want to change the people involved from heroes to protagonists, though writing about them in a historical novel will certainly do so.  And thereby make them more heroic, but less human.  By writing himself into the story thinking about these things he makes himself into a character.  Now his concerns become as much a part of the story as the history.  That’s always true, of course, but he makes it explicit.

It’s a saving grace of the book that Binet the character is friendly, thoughtful, and great company.  He may be concerned with the effect of telling the story, but he also does a great job of doing it.  He brings the men to life compassionately, describes the times and places with telling detail, and relates his feelings sympathetically.  The overall effect is one of hearing the history with a well-read and interesting friend.

Binet the author has researched his topic in nearly obsessive detail.  He knows the history of the operation in every particular, and the versions told in literature and popular fiction even better.  It’s great to think deeply about the nature of fiction, but nothing gives those concerns weight like being able to point at the telling details one author uses and another discards.  Especially when the truth gets slippery.

HHhH is unique and fascinating.

Strongly Recommended.

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