12383258We are in Prague, in 1942. Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent by London plan to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich—head of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’.

Heydrich works for Hitler’s most powerful henchman, Heinrich Himmler, but in the SS they say ‘HHhH’: ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich’—Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.

All the characters in HHhH existed then or still exist now. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding story of the preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up?

HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern. It is a moving, tense, and shattering work of fiction.

Source Format Pages Publisher Genre Publication Date
Amazon Hardcover 336 Harvill Secker Historical Fiction May 3rd, 2012

First of all- did you read the synopsis? No? Then, do go back and read it… the review below is anything but a summary… 😉

There are a couple of things I need to get off my chest… The book was first published in 2009, so the 2012 publication date is for the hardcover I read. As for the genre- historical fiction? I feel odd classifying it under such. It’s historical, yes. Fiction? Mmmmh, yes but not so much!

I never would have read this book, if it wasn’t for my work colleague, Jozsef, who I would describe as enigmatic and one of those uniquely intelligent people. My conversations with him are always falling into the debate category and I always learn a new angle to any topic after a discussion with him. He kindly sent me the book to read and he reread it himself so we could have a chat about it when we met for a company meeting. I guess, in a way I can tick a box for a buddy read- job well done!

And then another idea struck me- why won’t I ask Jozsef to add his thoughts into this review?! I am excited to say he accepted the ‘challenge’ and for this reason the review is different to the format I would normally write in… you could say, the review will be slightly chaotic…but, what I hope you get from the mish-mash of thoughts below, will be just about enough to remind yourself the wonder that is history. The thin line in between fact and fiction; the importance of keeping history alive, and ultimately- the realization that even though the wheels of time keep turning, there are still many a song to be sung for the fallen heroes and faceless victims who don’t deserve to be faceless, unknown, unheard of.

Off we go!

September 28, 1938: three days before the Munich Agreement. The world holds its breath. Hitler is more menacing than ever. The Czechs know that if they give up the natural barrier they call the Sudetenland, they are dead. Chamberlain declares: ‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.’

So, let’s get you into the setting: Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, Germany, World War II, Nazis, Third Reich. England and France. Victims… so many victims… so much oppression, so much death. Operation Anthropoid- a plan to assassinate. Kubiš and Gabčík. Two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent by the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile in London. Sounds straight forward- get in; locate The Hangman of Prague, the Blond Beast; point and shoot; job done. The fact that this is a suicide mission is acknowledged but the hope of getting out alive never dies…

HHhH, however, is more than just a chronological turn of events. All those people who died can never be just a number or some letters on a record somewhere, to be treated simply as names from the past. History could never be a dry account of x date, x amount of victims, Mr X the Culprit. Any event, no matter how planned, can, and more than likely will, be affected by factors unplanned, unexpected.

Jozsef: I think the book is not at all about the dude or the assassination. Never mind that. Athough, [reading] for the 2nd time now, I found the actual assassination action thing more intense.
The gun jamming….They could have shot the hell out of Heydrich, and the driver too, in a blink.
It’s so unjust. And the tram. That they were thinking that there’s a slight chance that it will be at the wrong place. And that’s exactly where it was. So unlucky… 

Not only does HHhH give a well-researched account of Operation Anthropoid, Laurent Binet made a long-lasting impression on me. Binet is completely obsessed with this certain event in history and I fully enjoyed his personal observations of gathering information, researching and reading books by other authors on the same topic. Binet doesn’t shy away from criticising other published works on the events and people (or in some cases I would change ‘people’ to ‘fucking Nazi pigs’) involved whereby he questions the validity and accuracy of the fact OR, indeed, the fictional ‘padding’ which no one could really confirm. Things like- someone going red in the face when under pressure; someone lifting their eyebrow when in thought; the things the parachutists did just prior to  jumping off the plane.  Binet frowns upon creating that ‘fictional fluff’.. BUT- and this is what makes the book cool- Binet uses it himself. Then he berates himself for doing so. One thing is for sure- reading historical fiction has forever been changed for me.

Jozsef: He gets SO pissed off when someone writes a bad book about it [the assassination]. But he makes them [Kubiš and Gabčík] smoke cigarettes in the future. And look back from the back window of buses they never took. He imagines and makes up so much stuff! Btw, I also read the Robert Merle book Binet mentions, and the one on the same subject written by Rudolf Höss himself… The Merle one is a piece of rubbish, he should be slapped in the face for it… 

The Merle one is written as an autobiography. The point is that Höss was captured by the allies and the British tortured him. This is how they got his confession. Merle’s book is full of that shit. To write a fake autobiography that’s mostly based on a confession like this is more than disgusting. We could do the same to anyone. We torture you, you admit of painting the moon green, then a writer takes care of your biography. Good luck explaining that it wasn’t you…

This is what I think: inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom I’ve discussed this: It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.

That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet- a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him out on two coats, when perhaps he had only one. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.

The format of HHhH is unique… the book does not have page numbers and the chapters not only vary from short (couple of sentences) to long (couple of pages), but the subject matter of each chapter is also sporadic. As such, in addition to Binet’s obsession with the topic and the way he decided to execute story progression, we find out personal things about the author in between.

Jozsef: I like the way we know about all the wives that left him, and his favorite tennis players. I couldn’t fail to notice that he goes through about 3 wives (girlfriends) as he writes, and he talks about them with so much love! The same love he feels for the parachutists. It’s totally irrelevant to us, but we know that one of the girlfriends won the writing competition when she was 16 in 2 consecutive years, and that it has never happened before.

I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel.

(The only definition or meaning I could find for ‘infranovel’ was this: ‘one that is constantly examining its own particular claim or truth’.)

I found it so odd reading this book… for a few reasons. I loved it. And I feel horrible for saying this- how can you love a book that is based on genocide? Here’s the thing- Binet managed to inject his passion to the pages of this book. Not only that. The feelings of dread, of disgust, of power and sadness and guilt and disbelief… everything! It’s all there. Most importantly, he makes you care, truly care, about the people long dead, that you wish Binet writing this book could rewrite and create a different ending to Operation Anthropoid. Binet tries to keep himself on track delivering this single event from the history of Third Reich and its evil clutches but, and he wonders this in the book, where does one pinpoint the beginning of causality? 

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell this story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect- and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it- ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy- the unmappable pattern of causality.

Jozsef: It’s fantastic that Binet writes the last couple of chapters in this weird mood. Once he says it’s like 4am or something when he writes, and that he gets this Prague-attack: he wants to go to Prague immediately. He must be in Prague to write the final chapters. I had a feeling that we would have turned ill if it took him a few weeks longer. That stress shit on him at the end, that he had to write what happened to them…

He gets distracted by absolutely everything. We seem to have a lot of time at the beginning, nothing is urgent, plenty of time for interesting stories. At the end it all becomes very tense and… I don’t know what. Distressed, or agitated, or something. I really liked when he was struggling with writing about the actual action. Then he used the Mercedes as a tool to help him focus on the story. He just put it at the end of the road and said that it’s coming! He could see it coming. And so did I. No more writing about shit, it’s on the move. And that date thing near the end, you know. So much like in Werther. On what date does it start? 27th of May, what else. It gives you a hint about the deteriorating mental state of the writer himself. Do you get me?

Yes! The ending, what felt like minutes before the assassination attempt started, Binet becomes reluctant to finally write about what he set out to write about…. That Mercedes is coming down the road, towards the curve for the longest minute…

Jozsef: And the Mercedes is definitely green!

Or is it black?

The historic countdown is delivered in modern day as Binet writes them in 2008. It adds so much suspense, it adds so much dread.. everyone (who knows the outcome of Operation Anthropoid) knows what’s going to happen but author and readers are reluctant to go this final stretch.. because it is and it isn’t the way we want things to end. Like Binet, we have come to love Kubiš and Gabčík.

The ending of the book, the build up to the final stand down, the author’s resistance to finish the story.. all those factors delivered a flood of emotions. Respect for The Aunt who gave her life to a cyanide pill to avoid becoming an informant, heartbreak for the guilt Kubiš and Gabčík felt for having caused the massacre of Lidice. But the parachutists’ mission was coming to an end…

Jozsef: 700 SS fuckheads for nearly a whole day!

Against 3 men! In a church!

Jozsef: As the parachutist are on their last clip and accept that it’s all over, Binet calms down, too. He even says it himself that he’s empty, and this is exactly what he seems like. He has been talking to me from his massive armchair through the whole time. Sometimes jumping up, shouting, enjoying- giving me all these details. But for the last few pages he just looks small in his chair and very, very sad. Then he finishes it off – he, who doesn’t want to invent a dialogue or a name – with the wildest metaphor: the living author and his real but dead “characters” on an imaginary boat….

Naturally, when you read this book- you’re left wondering- what if

Jozsef: It’s interesting to imagine what things did not happen because of Heydrich’s death: if he would have disabled the resistance in France, could it have prevented D-day?Or if what happened in Lidice never took place, could Hitler have had better support for his war?

Should you read this book? Yes. You absolutely must read HHhH. No matter when you read this book- it will take you back in time… or it will bring history back to this very day…  Nazi crimes are timeless. But so are the bravery of resistance and selfless acts!

The dead are dead, and it makes no difference to them whether I pay homage to their deeds. But for us, the living, it does mean something. Memory is of no use to the remembered, only to those who remember. We build ourselves with memory and console ourselves with memory.