HHhH: A Novel

HHhH: A Novel

4.1 35
by Laurent Binet

View All Available Formats & Editions

Laurent Binet’s HHhH, winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, is “a work of breadth, and absolute originality” (Claude Lanzmann)

Everyone has heard of Reinhard Heydrich, “the Butcher of Prague.” And most have heard stories of his spectacular assassination at the hands of two Czechoslovakian partisans. But who

…  See more details below


Laurent Binet’s HHhH, winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, is “a work of breadth, and absolute originality” (Claude Lanzmann)

Everyone has heard of Reinhard Heydrich, “the Butcher of Prague.” And most have heard stories of his spectacular assassination at the hands of two Czechoslovakian partisans. But who exactly were the forgotten heroes who killed one of history’s most notorious men? In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heiBt Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich), we follow the lives of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš, the Slovak and the Czech responsible for Heydrich’s death. From their heroic escape from Nazi-occupied Prague to their recruitment by the British secret services; from their meticulous preparation and training to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone; from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal deaths in the basement of a Prague church, Binet narrates the compelling story of these two incredible men, rescuing their heroic acts from obscurity. The winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, Binet’s HHhH is a novel unlike anything else. A seemingly effortless blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Binet’s remarkable imagination, HHhH is a work at once thrilling and deeply engrossing—a historical novel and a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Heaven preserve us from any more novels set during World War II.

Every possible story has been told. Every shard of the fragmented world the war left us in has been examined and catalogued, every possible narrative turn already taken. One wants to beg the eager young novelist presenting his or her heartfelt story of love and redemption set against the backdrop of the death camps, please just stop it already. Find some new material — there is nothing genuine left here for you.

Of course, it's obvious why writers want to write the World War II novel. Never before were the stakes so high, and they never would be again. Never were the good guys and the bad guys so instantly recognizable. This particular setting heightens any cookie-cutter story almost immediately, no real work required. But that is also why so many of these novels are deeply disappointing. The writers of mediocre World War II fiction don't really have the strength to confront the material, they just drop in their characters from above like so many wooden marionettes. But you can't simply stand on the already dead corpse of Nazism and claim the victory as your own. Writers seem to forget that when you're going up against the Devil, you had better have a pretty powerful weapon.

Laurent Binet appears apologetic that he has written a novel with Nazis in it. In HHhH, he hedges, he repents, he qualifies. He knows all of the pitfalls of the genre and he uses them — and then immediately points out that he did so. And with all of the hemming and hawing, the writing and scratching out, the scribbling in the margins and constant authorial interference, Binet has produced the only essential piece of World War II fiction in years.

Binet believes he has found the one untold story of World War II. Somehow a small vein of ore has survived the years of strip mining by clumsy novelists, and he races toward it with his pickaxe. It's a particularly pure variety, the story of the assassination of one of the most important and cold- hearted Germans in Hitler's inner circle. It's none other than the architect of the Final Solution himself, Reinhard Heydrich. (Hence the strange title, HHhH, or Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich — Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.) The assassination itself is so incredibly pulpy — two parachutists, one Czech, one Slovakian, drop into Prague to take out the evil mastermind, and there's a gun that jams at the worst possible second, a traitor, a shootout in a cathedral, and a martyr's death — it's impossible to believe no one has told the story before. Just think of the film adaptation, sweeping the Oscars. Binet is sitting on a gold mine.

Only, in the course of writing the novel, Binet learns that the story has indeed been told before. More than once. In films, in books. He refuses to be discouraged, and he works to find fault in all that came before him so that he may justify the existence of his own account. There are factual errors in some, melodramatic flourishes in others. One novel, David Chacko's Like a Man, he almost envies for its certainty about how things went down. When Binet finds gaps in the historical record, even on minor details like what one of the assassins might have been wearing, he twists himself into knots, trying to decide whether to make something up to fill in that gap or whether he should say he doesn't know. Usually he does both. But Chacko confidently writes in declarative sentences. Binet complains, "So he bases his tale on a true story, fully exploiting its novelistic elements, blithely inventing when that helps the narration, but without being answerable to history. He's a skillful cheat. A trickster. Well...a novelist, basically."

Binet can't quite let himself be a novelist, and that is what makes the book so remarkable. It is as much a meditation on fictionalizing history — on factual truth versus a more expansive definition of truth, on the obligations and the agendas of writers — as it is a story about an assassination. The real historical story of Jozef Gabč¡k and Jan Kubiš may move in a relatively straight line, from the Czechoslovak government-in-exile under President Edvard Beneš in Britain to the parachute drop to Heydrich's car to the last hideout in the cathedral. It has a powerful thrust behind it, an inevitable momentum. Binet refuses to be pulled alongside it. When a friend asks him how much of the story he is inventing on his own, Binet snaps, "What would be the point of 'inventing' Nazism?"

"I'm not sure yet if I'm going to 'visualize' (that is, invent!) this meeting or not. If I do, it will be the clinching proof that fiction does not respect anything." Binet, a secondary school teacher, by the way, is right: fiction does not respect anything. The way it mucks about with the historical record to reveal deeper truths is often the source of its power. But that is possible only when the writer is up to the task. More often fiction dresses itself in in the heavy drapery of history, pretending the gravity is its own. Binet accomplishes something paradoxical. By clinging to the historical record and a very strict definition of truth, he transcends the barest facts and creates a work with its own heft and depth. Laurent Binet decided to take on a devil named Heydrich. It is our good fortune his arsenal was a full one.

Jessa Crispin is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Bookslut.com.

Reviewer: Jessa Crispin

Read More

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.74(w) x 8.38(h) x 1.08(d)

Read an Excerpt



Gabcík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabcík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

So, Gabcík existed, and it was to this name that he answered (although not always). His story is as true as it is extraordinary. He and his comrades are, in my eyes, the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War. For a long time I have wanted to pay tribute to him. For a long time I have seen him, lying in his little room—shutters closed, window open—listening to the creak of the tram (going which way? I don’t know) that stops outside the Botanical Gardens. But if I put this image on paper, as I’m sneakily doing now, that won’t necessarily pay tribute to him. I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? I don’t want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.


Copyright © 2009 by Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle

Translation copyright © 2012 by Sam Taylor

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

HHhH: A Novel 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 35 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting story, but it could have been told in half the pages. I was not fond of the amount of time spent by the author talking about himself and his writing decisions. A bit too self absorbed for me.
OddJim More than 1 year ago
If Ms. Crispin read the book and were aware of everything else that's been written about Reinhard Heydrich, she'd realize that Laurent Binet has added something unique and vital to the body of work already available on this evil "genius." I generally don't like novels that blend historical fact with fiction, but the author does it without betraying the truths that we know; he simply fills in the blanks that we don't know. It's a good read.
Andrew_in_Maplewood More than 1 year ago
Compelling read, utterly fascinating. I could hardly put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A "herky-jerkey" self-examination in the guise of a novel in which the author cannot decide whether he is going to examine the subject matter and tell a readable story or indulge in self-flagellation. It is barely readable and NOT worth the money.
MJPost More than 1 year ago
A French writer takes on the Czech assassination plot of high-level Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. The story is as much about writing the tale of the parachutists who dropped into Czechoslovakia as it is about the parachutists themselves. Only a Frenchman could weave such a narrative, driving the plot along while musing on the nature of writing. I liked the book so much I picked up a copy in French to see how they compare.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Licks and slips into u again( gtg)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rap<_>es alexis then walks out. Bye.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SHoves my vagi.na hard into your face
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walks in
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Whats wrong?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who is talking to me?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi dylan... wassup
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bree!!!!!!"! What happened to vine! moonflower vine!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Next result."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi <rp>
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Besides the Warrior's Den, the Apprentice's Den. Littered with warm nest, this cavern serves perfectly as a Den.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is so good you guys n girls read this
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
rl good u guys
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
casa42 More than 1 year ago
Given that this novel won a Prix Goncourt I expected a better book. I think the author failed to bring any of his characters to life. Heydrich, in particular, does not really emerge as a real fiigure.The juxtaposition of "fact" and fiction was not particularly novel although the reviewer for the NYT seems to have been impressed by this.