Friday, September 07, 2012

What We're Reading: New Fiction

HHhH by Laurent Binet


HHhH is the fictionalized account of one of the most famous acts of resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II, the assassination in May of 1942 in Prague of of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi “Protector” of Bohemia and Moravia. Binet’s novel was a bestseller in Europe and won the French Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010.

Reinhard Heydrich, at just 38 years old, was a star in the Nazi party. As Binet’s narrator tells us, he was the “perfect Nazi prototype: tall, blond, cruel, totally obedient and deadly efficient.” Heydrich, who came to be known as “The Butcher of Prague,” was the head of Nazi intelligence and organized the Kristallnacht pogrom of Jews in November of 1938. He was responsible for forming the Einsatzgruppen death squads that served as the police force in German-occupied territories, which exterminated hundreds of thousands of partisans and Jews, and in 1942 he led the Wannsee Conference that put in motion the extermination of Europe’s Jews in the “Final Solution.” He reported directly to SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, and in Nazi circles he earned the nickname “HHhH” (short for the German “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich”) ---“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”

The attempt to murder Heydrich, dubbed “Operation Anthropoid,” was planned by British Intelligence in collaboration with the Czech government in exile in London. It was carried out primarily by two Czech expatriates who had escaped to Britain during the Nazi invasion of their country: Jozef Gabcik, a Slovak factory worker, and Jan Kubis, a Czech solider. The Royal Air Force flew them and a number of other resistance operatives over Czechoslovakia, where they parachuted back into their occupied country. Heydrich had grown arrogant about his power and publically flaunted his assumption of invulnerability. In a country where he was widely despised, he was driven to his office in Prague Castle every day in an open Mercedes Benz without any kind of escort. He died eight days after the attack from an infection of the wounds he received from a grenade thrown by Kubis. After the attack, Gabcik and Kubis hid in the crypt of a Prague church with five other resisters, but their location was betrayed to the Nazis by another partisan. Following a prolonged assault by 800 storm troopers and a heroic standoff, all of the partisans were either killed or committed suicide. In retaliation for Heydrich’s murder, Hitler had the entire Czech village of Lidice razed and its 500 residents executed.

This is a dramatic story in itself, and Binet has done remarkable research on this historic episode, has a wonderful eye for the apposite detail, and has told the story well. But others have told this story in fiction and film as well. What makes Binet’s book so special is that he has written a “meta-fiction” that is not only a thriller but one that explores the very nature of historical fiction itself and, in a more fundamental sense, the question of how we make historical events intimately our own so they have meaning for us.

Binet’s unnamed narrator or alter-ego selfconsciously weighs in front of us his decisions about fact and invention in the novel he is writing. He tells us of his internal debates about what to include and what to imagine and how to tell the story so that truth is not compromised. We are witnesses to all of this as we see him construct the novel right in front of our eyes. There is a certain engaging charm to all of this, a seriocomic habiliment that clothes an important intellectual inquiry. Binet prefaces his novel with an epigram from Osip Madelstam: “Once again, the writer stains the tree of History with his thoughts, but it is not for us to find the trick that would enable us to put the animal back in its carrying cage.” Benet’s novel makes us aware of the characteristic and perhaps inevitable faults of historical fiction, but in the end seems to make the case that our imaginative and “fictive” inventions are instinctive turns of mind, something we must engage if we wish to understand history and its meaning most deeply and personally. It is in our nature to feel compelled to supply the things missing from a recitation of the historical facts: the dialogue, the symbolic details, the foreshadowing, the imposition of narrative structure, character as it is expressed through movement and action, all the things that bring us closer, that create a sense of our presence and witness at historical events. Binet’s HHhH is an exposition on how one might walk with some integrity this troublesome line between the real and the imagined. This difficult balance becomes in Benet’s deft sleight-of-hand as engaging a story as the historical narrative itself.

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