By Laurent Binet
Harvill Secker – £12.99
This has to be my book of the year.
It’s current. It’s clever. It’s witty. It’s wry. It’s dense. It’s devastating. It’s everything one comprehensively looks for in a book. Oddly enough, it’s also sassy and sexy – if a book on the assassination of ‘’the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’’ could ever be portrayed as such.
But yes, Martin Amis wasn’t too far off the mark when he described Laurent Binet’s HHhH as ‘’a highly original piece of work, at once charming, moving, and gripping.’’ Not only do I completely agree, I totally understand where he’s coming from.
Every now and then, a sparkling book of poignant precision will come along that is wholly capable of procuring the reader into such a fascinating web of literary joy, that it’s simply over before you know it – so much so, that the only disappointing feature is there’s nothing left to read – such as in this instance.
It’s no wonder HHhH won the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and the Prix des Lecteurs du Livre de Poche Awards in Binet’s native France. Could it be because the author subliminally transports the reader back and forth between the now and then and there; back and forth between the now and then and there; back and forth between the now and then and there (throughout)? Could it be because it’s an unsuspecting amalgamation of journalistic discernment, cleverly aligned with a certain pristine clarity from beginning to end? Or could it just be because it’s immaculately written?
Perhaps it’s a mixture of all three, which explains why the reader is akin to a suave, committed fly on the wall, quintessentially relentless in its ping-pong persuasion to keep turning all 257 pages really quickly. I, for one, found myself quasi-mesmerised amid an electrifying panorama of intense, historical modernity. And in all honesty, how often is it one can say that about (yet) another history book on the Second World War? Let alone one of the cruellest cunts to have ever graced the earth: ‘’[…] and this is rare enough to be worth mentioning in the lunatic asylum that is the Nazi Regime. Heinrich Muller, for example, who is put in charge of the Gestapo – and who identifies so completely with his job that hereafter he is known simply as ‘Gestapo’ Muller – is a former Christian Democrat: an affiliation that does not prevent him from becoming one of the Nazis’ most devastating weapons.’’
In 1942, two under-cover Czechoslovakian parachutists (Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis) are sent on an unspeakably daring mission by London to assassinate none other than Reinhard Heydrich. Often referred to as ‘the hangman of Prague,’ ‘the blond beast,’ but more often than not as ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.’ This most daring of deputations – an understatement methinks – known as Operation Anthropoid, is what HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich) fundamentally focuses on.
Yet how it berates, beguiles, bequeaths: ‘’[…] it must be admitted that in literary terms Heydrich is a wonderful character. It’s as if a Dr Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature. Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.’’
Indeed Heydrich was (unfortunately) not a paper monster. This substantiates why all the characters and all the events in this brilliant book are so undeniably candid and real. But, and here’s the deal, when reality is aligned with artistic license, how can one possibly (not) resist the more than alluring temptation to mix things up: ‘’I’m not sure yet if I’m going to ‘visualise’ (that is, invent!) this meeting or not. If I do, it will be the clinching proof that fiction does not respect anything.’’
Such simultaneously deft definition and questioning of such mighty, weighty words as ‘fiction’ and ‘respect’ in the same sentence, lest we forget – the same book, are what partially account for HHhH’s uber-weight in literary gold. For as much as we are able to enjoy the idiosyncratic instincts of a great story-teller, the ever unreasonable, razor funk terror of Hitler’s vile death squads, lurk forever in the shadows: ‘’Somewhere in Germany, an eighty-one-year old lady hears a banging at the door. When she opens to the SA, she sniggers: ‘Oh, what important visitors I have this morning!’ But when the SA tell her to get dressed and follow them, she sits on the sofa and declares: ‘I won’t get dressed and I won’t g anywhere. Do with me what you will.’ And when she repeats, ‘Do with me what you will,’ the squad leader draws his pistol and shoots her in the chest. She collapses on the sofa. He puts a second bullet in her head. She falls off the sofa and rolls over on the carpet. But she is not yet dead. Her head turned towards the window, she emits a quiet groan. So he shoots her again – in the middle of her forehead this time, from four inches away.’’
A roller-coaster ride of literary truth and integrity, this book really is going to take some beating.