HHhH is the English translation (by Sam Taylor) of a novel named after the phrase ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’. In it, we are given insight into the life, thoughts and actions of Reinhard Heydrich, set against the story’s main event – the assassination of this Blond Beast, Butcher of Prague, the Hangman by one Czech and one Slovakian. Two ideologies united by a hatred of this evil executor of the Final Solution.
That is one side of the novel. The other is that of the path of the historical novelist. Rather than give us a straightforward, chronological and fictional, albeit accurate, account of Heydrich’s life, in tandem with that of his assassins, Laurent Binet instead presents HHhH as an exercise in historical fiction. We can never overlook the input of the author, his intentions, his method, his purpose and even his failings. Throughout, Binet interjects to explain the reasons for his inclusion of a fact or opinion, his doubts over a verbal exchange between characters and his own very personal reasons for caring so much for Czechoslovakia.
In mostly very brief and to the point chapters, Binet takes us through Heydrich’s cold, violent rise to power, his dealings with Hitler and Himmler and his eradication of all opposition, whether on political or religious grounds. A guest at a dinner party could well find himself face under foot in a cell within a matter of days. Alongside it all are little asides from our author, asking if it is reasonable to put words into the mouths of historically real characters.
But while Binet’s unusual and fascinating narrative repeatedly makes the reader question the technique and aim of the historical fiction novelist, the horrific reality of Heydrich, the abysmal truth of his actions, holds up the value of such an exercise. This might be fiction, it might be coloured by the prejudices of its author, but these events did happen and, like it or not, the job of the novelist includes the remit to make such men live forever on the page.
There is a problem with this approach, however, but this is very much the problem of the reader (or, more particularly, this reader) and not the novelist. While I could appreciate and admire the intellectual games behind this very conscious presentation of history, it’s hard to spend hours in the company of Heydrich. For me it was too relentless and grim but, if you’re able to work through that, I think you will find this a fascinating exercise in the storytelling of history.