AT ITS heart, HHhH, the debut work of French journalist Laurent Binet, is about Reinhard Heydrich – head of the Gestapo and criminal police in the Third Reich, deputy leader of the SS, and Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, administering the Nazi occupation of what is now the Czech Republic – and Operation Anthropoid, the British backed plot to assassinate him.
Yet the book is not just a work of history, it is also a memoir, charting its author’s fascination with his subject and the lengths he goes to to assemble the information and track down evidence, records, and documents.
HHhH is also about the process of writing history and the kind of challenges that poses a writer. Where there are gaps in the evidence, do you let your imagination fill them in? How far can you go without risking fictionalising elements of the story?
Although written with a novelist’s sense of pace and feel for drama and atmosphere, HHhH is clearly a work of non-fiction, popular history, yet look for it in bookstores and it is filed under ‘novels’ and ‘fiction’!
Laurent Binet’s imaginative, original, and post-modern approach to history writing has produced a work which defies easy categorisation, but how does he feel about his non-fiction work being branded ‘fiction’?
“At first I was not sure I wanted it to be called a novel,” Laurent tells me from his home in Paris. “But I understood the marketing reasons my publisher had for doing that, that the book would be easier to promote, so that is how I came up with the concept of the ‘infonovel’. I’m also OK with it being called a ‘non-fiction novel’.”
HHhH is a very personal work, featuring episodes from Laurent’s life; his love of Prague; descriptions of his visits to museums, sights where various actions in Operation Anthropoid took place; and his reactions to documents and photos, becoming as essential to the book as the dramatic events around Heydrich and his assassins Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcík. Yet never does this become self-indulgent or distract from the breathtaking pace of the recounted historical events.
“Most of the time it is laziness from writers who use the convention of imagining themselves as a narrator in the story – someone who is like them but who is not them, and feel that if they use a narrator it is literature. I disagree. If I want someone to speak for me, why not let it be me? Otherwise why would I bother?” says Laurent, who delights in breaking down barriers between the reader and the author.
So while HHhH’s narrator is clearly Laurent, and is truthfully autobiographical, he also points out how the format can never allow a reader to gain a full impression of the author. By the book’s very nature, it can only display that part of him obsessed by history, thereby highlighting the limitations of autobiography.
“The narrator is me,” he says, “but only to a certain extent. I know in the book I must look like a maniac and obsessive and very strict as I pursue the story, but I’m not like that in other areas of my life, so it’s a kind of caricature of myself. It’s like when I play tennis, you would see another side of me that I’m not always like.”
Although Laurent originally intended HHhH (from Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” an old SS joke ) to be called Operation Anthropoid and centre on Kubis and Gabcík, the ‘Blond Beast’ Heydrich, one of the most appalling and fascinating men of the 20th century, perhaps inevitably came to take centre stage.
“In the history of the Third Reich, at every stage, Heydrich is there,” says Laurent. “I was fascinated by his character in a literary way. He had this amazing story and destiny, and that is what interested me rather than looking at his psychology and for the roots of his evil. It was not my goal to explain the evil.”
Laurent does not need to – he lets the facts speak for themselves. His accounts of the SS Einsatzgruppen mass murders in Russia are terrifying as is the account of a woman holding a baby up before Heydrich, only for him to dismiss her and have both shot. For the author, these atrocities are emblematic of what Heydrich was.
“When he and Himmler visited the Einsatzgruppen carrying out their executions, Himmler fainted and Heydrich was shocked,” he says, “not from any mercy for the victims, but they were worried about the mental effect it was having on the soldiers carrying them out.
“Heydrich was a bureaucratic murderer, working for the Nazis. When he chaired the Wannsee Conference, where the plan for Final Solution and what they wanted to do to Europe’s 11 million Jews, was presented, it was treated like a business meeting. That says a lot about Heydrich and the Nazis. It was a global/industrial project of genocide.
“Heydrich was also very ambitious. He was in charge of the Night of the Long Knives, making sure to add the names of his own enemies to the list of those to be killed.”
Laurent’s daring approach to writing history deservedly resulted in HHhH enjoying critical and commercial success first in France in 2009 and then internationally late last year, upon its translation into English. Does he plan to pen any more such styled books on WWII or other areas of history?
“You never say never,” he laughs, “but I don’t think there will be anything soon about the Second World War. I need a break! My next novel will be set during the eighties, so it will be history, but a little bit different, but I think I will always be concerned and interested by the complex relation between history and fiction and I will work on it in a different way then in HHhH.”
Laurent Binet will be in the Town Hall Studio, along with Sheila Heti, on Thursday April 25 at 1pm, as part of the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 – 569777 and www.tht.ie