Review of HHhH by Ilanna

October 24, 2018 |  Tagged , | Comments Off on Review of HHhH by Ilanna

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Although Laurent Binet’s 2010 historical novel HHhH is just one of the scores of World War II-related books, it is one of the best—not only in its storytelling but in its sophistication. This is not only due to the author’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy (that at times even borders on the obsessive) but because the self-conscious narrative voice explores not only the events described in the book, but the author’s experiences as he wrote the book. The novel explores the author’s struggled to create a narrative structure out of real events, and characters out of real people. Although the novel still has its failings, it succeeds as a fantastic introduction to its topic.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 HHhH takes place largely in Prague in 1942, and follows the story of Operation Anthropoid. Anthropoid was the British military operation that trained two Czechoslovak soldiers-in-exile and then parachuted them into Prague to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the right-hand man to Heinrich Himmler. In addition to being the Reich-Protector of the occupied Czechlands, Heydrich was the head of the Gestapo and one of the leading architects of the Holocaust. With the help of the Czechoslova resistance, the two soldiers did manage to kill their target. Heydrich was by far the highest-ranking Nazi official to be assassinated during the war. In retaliation, the Gestapo tracked down and killed the assassins and numerous members of the Czechoslovak Resistance, as well as several thousand innocent Czechoslovak civilians.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Binet’s novel is beautifully and poignantly written; the edge-of-your-seat thrills and emotionally charged scenes feel almost like a blockbuster movie. The author, however, does not simply tell the story of Operation Anthropoid. Rather, the book is just as much about Benet’s experiences writing the book as about the historic event itself. The reader is given a glimpse not only into the challenges of the protagonists, but the challenges of the author as he struggles to write a novel based on true events. Binet, like all writers of historical novels, is caught in the conflict of wanting to stay true to the historic record, but of also wanting to tell a good story. He believes that misrepresenting the past would be a gross violation of the heroes and victims in his story—and commemorating the heroes and victims is his primary concern. However, real life is never as tightly structured as a novel, and real people rarely behave the way a perfectly-crafted character should. Binet laments his impossible position in the very beginning of the novel: “I am reducing this man [Gabčík, one of the assassins] to the ranks of the vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do?”

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 What Binet actually does is both novel and controversial. For the most part, his story is highly historically accurate, and throughout the book Binet explains exactly where he got his information from, where representations of the story in other books and movies got it wrong, and what his girlfriend thinks of his increasing obsession with tracking down every detail of the events from ever more obscure sources. However, there are times when the historical record simply will not do; when writing a novel, it is impossible to simply tell the story without any literary embellishments—even a story as dramatic as Operation Anthropoid. And so Binet makes things up. Entire scenes are invented, generally for the purpose of adding drama or human elements to parts of the story that have no  record for accurate reconstruction. However—and this is the interesting part—the reader will inevitably turn the page and be faced with the author’s confession that the scene he has just read was completely made up. In this way, Binet finds a way to write a story that follows the rules of both literature and of history: he does lie to create deeper characters or a tighter narrative structure, but he tells you when he is lying. He seems to believe that a certain level of sensationalizing history is unavoidable or maybe even desirable, but the least he can do is admit to the best of his ability when he is writing history and when he is venturing into the world of fiction. Although his methods are highly controversial, they do a better job of separating fact from fiction than most other historical novels and works of historical fiction tend to do.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 However, the deliberate use of fiction in a historic novel is not the most fundamental limitation of Binet’s work. Because the main purpose of this work is to extoll the virtues of his heroes and the treachery of his villains, HHhH leaves out fundamental information and debates that surround the historic even. Binet declares that Anthropoid was the “single greatest act of resistance of World War II.” Not only is this sweeping statement highly biased (what about Warsaw Ghetto Uprising or the escape from Sobibor?), many Czechoslovaks living at the time were inclined to disagree with BInet’s statement. It may be true that Heydrich was a terrible person (he didn’t get the nickname “Hangman of Prague” for nothing) and that the two soldiers who killed him performed an action of incredible self-sacrifice, but whether it was justifiable to assassinate a high-ranking Nazi official, knowing that the fallout would lead to many civilian deaths, was far from clear. Indeed, as the British and Czechoslovak military officials anticipated, the Gestapo killed over one thousand innocent people in retaliation following the attack on Heydrich. (The most famous site of terror in the aftermath of the assassination was the Czech town of Ludice, in which all of its inhabitants were murdered on the spot or imprisoned, and the town itself razed to the ground.)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Both people living at the time and historians afterwards questioned whether Anthropoid was a justifiable operation. Many viewed it as a political maneuver of the Czechoslovak president-in-exile, who was willing to sacrifice thousands of his people in order to get in the good graces of the British government. The costs and benefits of Anthropoid, the political intrigues and controversies that surround it, are truly fascinating and have been taken up by professional historians for decades. However, none of this is to be found in Binet’s book. HHhH does, of course, describe the Gestapo’s violent retaliation, but this is just to highlight the evil of the Nazis, not to seriously question the actions of his heroes. The controversial aspects of Anthropoid are almost entirely skipped over.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Despite its limitations, HHhH is a fascinating book. It is both entertaining and moving, and it does a better job than most historic novels of staying accurate to the historic record, being transparent when it veers into fiction, and of leaving the reader fascinated enough about wartime Europe to want to learn more.


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