I like to do my research for you chaps. I read the book. I chew a pencil between chapters. I patter about online soaking up what others thought. I don’t ask people in the real world – don’t be silly – but I do have a look-see, particularly at what the pros thought – Independent, New York Review of Books, Telegraph, and so on. But this time I only got to the third word of the Guardian review before I had all I needed. “Does“, the Guardian ponders, “[HhhH’s] po-mo surface diminish this true story?” “po mo” – delicious! This means, of course, post-modern – that scourge of life and literature where we’re all desperately metafictional and self-reflexive [I write, while sitting in my kitchen drinking fennel tea – OR DO I?] It’s quite the done thing, but heck, it can get in the way. And if you want a poster-boy of recent post-modernism, step up HHhH – it’s EXHAUSTINGLY po-mo.
HHhH continually refers to itself as a novel, but it isn’t in the traditional sense. This is a self-conscious history book anguished by the process of its own creation. Its subject, when he gets around to it, is the assassination of Heydrich, Himmler and ultimately Hitler’s greatest asset. Binet spends at least third of the book (interspersed throughout its full length) talking about writing it. But this isn’t just for trickery – or so Binet would have you believe. Binet wants to share the story of Heydrich’s assassination with integrity – that is, without the imagination which makes historical fiction so ‘false’ – whipping up conversations, episodes, details from your minds eye. The reader sees Binet battle against these urges, presenting scene only to tell us immediately that he’s made it up. It’s a funny old scruple and you can’t help wondering why he doesn’t give himself an easy ride and simply write a history after all. You get heartily sick of his tortured self, though Binet is astute enough to know this and acknowledge how irritating his fixation is to all around him. If only he realised more how irritating it is to the reader.
Fortunately he has some slap-bang fascinating source material to work with – the war, German politics, Nazism, Czech resistance, and on and on – which keeps you going even if his authorial asides make you ache to give him a good slap. He also protests rather too much on some points – for example, that the assassins are his heroes rather than Heydrich, to whom he dedicates the lion’s share of the book. The abhorrent Heydrich is clearly nobody’s “hero”, but he certainly is the protagonist of this book. Only near the end of the book do Kubiš and Gabčík (the assassins) acquire real force and importance, and clearly more comfortable in this more noble narrative, Binet’s voice suddenly clicks into place and starts adding momentum and pathos to the story.
For when it works (late in the book) all the po-mo does give the book a freshness and originality. Binet is so involved with the story, and cares so deeply and personally, that it gives the history a modern frissance. It can never fall into cold dry history when we are seeing Binet’s current struggle with it every step of the way. The very climax of the book is related in paragraphs headed wih the days on which he wrote each, at least a day per paragraph relating to actions that took only hours or minutes. It’s strangely effective, making each step seem more of a struggle, more momentous.
After a reluctant start, I was hooked by HHhH. I did eventually read past the first three words of the Guardian review and the journalist questions whether Binet’s messing around actually added to the historical story. He concludes “by the time you reach the book’s devastating finale, it’s this discreet storytelling mastery, rather than the more grabby po-mo flourishes, that leaves the deepest impression“. I’d have to agree, but it wouldn’t have been so fresh and immediate – or memorable – without them. So I shouldn’t be so po(-mo) faced.*
* I simply couldn’t resist, sorry.