HHhH: A Novel

HHhH: A Novel

4.2 31
by Laurent Binet
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Taking its title from the German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,” Binet’s tour de force debut tells two stories: primarily that of the daring mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the prominent Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia known as “The Butcher” and “The Man with the Iron Heart” (a nickname of Hitler’s creation) among other epithets. It is also, however, the metafictional tale of Binet’s struggles with shaping the story. The novel’s 257 short chapters allow for these two strands to advance and entwine in gripping and revealing ways. When Binet stamps a key scene with the progressive dates of the three weeks in 2008 that it took him to render the eight-hour standoff in 1942, for instance, it deepens an already intense scene with a sense of the author’s reluctance to dispatch characters he admires. Those men, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, “authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history,” were trained in England and parachuted back into Nazi-occupied Bohemia on a mission they both knew might be suicidal. After months of planning, on May 27, 1942, they ambushed Heydrich in Prague. Weeks later they were cornered in a church basement, and Binet renders an almost unbearable account of their final hours fending off the SS. With history never in question, it is Binet’s details (such as Heydrich succumbing to an infection from having “horsehairs from the Mercedes’s seats” blasted into his spleen) and his compassion for the partisans that elevate these set pieces. His thoughts on the perils of the genre are also succinct and striking; inserting invented characters into historical novels is “like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.” Binet demonstrates without a doubt that a self aware, cerebral structure can be deployed in the service of a gripping historical read. A perfect fusion of action and the avante-garde that deserves a place as a great WWII novel. (May)
Library Journal
Binet (La vie professionnelle de Laurent B) has written two novels in one here. The first is an often mesmerizing account of the assassination of the Blond Beast, Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia when those parts of dismembered Czechoslovakia were under German occupation during World War II. The second novel, which runs contiguously with the first, is a very self-conscious and ongoing explanation about how he wrote the book. The plot traces the trajectories of the Slovak Jozef Gabcík and the Czech Jan Kubiš, sent by the British secret service, as they parachute into their country to assassinate the Nazi overlord. In tailing them on their mission, the author also supplies a brief bio of the Nazi leader, known at the time as the most dangerous man in the Third Reich. The book's title consists of the German letters for "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich" (Heydrich reported directly to Nazi Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler). VERDICT Binet won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, France's most prestigious literary prize, for HHhH. This fluid translation by Taylor is a superb choice for lovers of historical literary works and even international thrillers. Most highly recommended.—Edward Cone, New York
Kirkus Reviews
The evergreen allure of Nazis as the embodiment of evil is what drives this French author's soul-stirring work: a hybrid of fact and meta-fiction that won the Prix Goncourt in 2010. Picture a man being driven to work in an open-top car, taking the same route every day. He is feared and loathed by passersby, yet he has no bodyguard. This is Heydrich in Prague in 1942: the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, supremely powerful, supremely vulnerable. He is Binet's anti-hero. His projected assassination is Binet's story, and Heydrich's would-be assassins (Gabcík the Slovak and Kubiš the Czech) are Binet's heroes. "Two men have to kill a third man." Simple, no? But the narration is not. Binet's alter ego narrator is a zealous amateur historian. Like all amateurs, he makes mistakes; disarmingly, he admits them. "I've been talking rubbish," he exclaims. He retracts some of his assertions; he regrets his inadequacy as a historian. Yet in fact he does a good job of putting the assassination in a geopolitical context. He excoriates the spinelessness of the British and French governments in acceding to Hitler's takeover of Czechoslovakia. He convincingly profiles Heydrich, aka the Blond Beast and the Hangman of Prague. This monster was Himmler's deputy in the SS (the goofy title refers to the belief that he was also Himmler's brain) and the principal architect of the Final Solution. The assassination, dubbed Operation Anthropoid, was the brainchild of Beneš, head of the Czech government-in-exile in London. He needed a coup to restore the morale of the Czech anti-Nazis. Gabcík and Kubiš parachute in. The arrival of these modest yet extraordinary patriots is like the first hint of dawn after a pitch-black night. They are embedded with the Czech resistance while they plan tactics. The account of the assassination attempt and its nail-biting aftermath is brilliantly suspenseful. Binet deserves great kudos for retrieving this fateful, half-forgotten episode, spotlighting Nazi infamy, celebrating its resisters, and delivering the whole with panache.
Alan Riding
By placing himself in the story, alongside Heydrich and his assassins, the narrator challenges the traditional way historical fiction is written. We join him on his research trips to Prague; we learn his reactions to documents, books and movies; we hear him admit that he sometimes imagines what he cannot possibly know. And, in the end, his making of a historical novel brings a raw truth to an extraordinary act of resistance. This literary tour de force, now smoothly translated by Sam Taylor …[leaves] one intriguing question…unanswered: Is this a true account of how Binet wrote his book or did he plan its unusual structure from the start? Either way, the result is a gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened.
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher

HHhH blew me away. Binet's style fuses it all together: a neutral, journalistic honesty sustained with a fiction writer's zeal and story-telling instincts. It's one of the best historical novels I've ever come across.” —Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero

“Unsurpassable... Told with elegance and grace... A magnificent book.” —Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

“Brings a raw truth to an extraordinary act of resistance...A literary tour de force...A gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened.” —Alan Riding, The New York Times Book Review

“Binet has threaded his novel with a contemporary story, which is the drama of the book's own making.... The tone is clever, witty, casually postmodern....Captivating.” —James Wood, The New Yorker

HHhH is a startling novel....Who would expect a postmodern exploration of the limits of historical fiction to be a page-turner? But it is, absolutely....Fascinating.” —Madeline Miller, NPR

“Marvelous...Pulsing with life, lit by a wisp of dry humor, [and] fully imagined.” —Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

“One of the best and most original new novels I've read in years....HHhH is paced like a thriller, in which the endgame is the fate of the world.” —Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“[An] extraordinary first novel...HHhH, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, charts Heydrich's rise through the Nazi ranks and Germany's march to war...[to] the training in Britain of the Czech and Slovak assassins, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík, who parachuted into the country in December 1941 to kill Heydrich. Ample material for a decent espionage thriller, but Binet, ‘a slave to my scruples,' makes something altogether less commonplace of it. His fidelity to the historical record, and obsessive urge to analyse those moments where surmise replaces fact, makes HHhH as much about the technical and moral processes of writing a historical novel as it is a historical novel...This unusual method results in a literary triumph...Using short, punchy chapters, Binet keeps his story haring along. The book's final section, which recounts the assassination and subsequent manhunt in minute detail, is a masterpiece of tension, and its closing pages are extremely moving. Very few page-turners come as smart and original as this.” —Chris Power, The Times (London)

“[Binet] knows how to wrangle powerful moments from history.” —Susannah Meadows, The New York Times

“Every now and then a piece of work comes along that undermines the assumptions upon which all previous works have been built...These pieces of art complicate the genre for everyone that follows. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius did it for the memoir, Reservoir Dogs for action films, and now HHhH does it for the historical novel. Laurent Binet's brilliantly translated debut deconstructs the process of fiction writing in the face of the brute reality of facts...Binet's [HHhH] resets the path of the historical novel. He has a bright, bright future.” —David Annand, The Telegraph

“Ingenious and inventive... HHhH [is a] knockout blow in the boxing match of genre-defying literature. Binet steps between styles with ease... [and] has written a tale of Heydrich to defy most academic study. Moreover, Binet has managed to engage. His description is playful and joyous, at times even wrongfully celebratory, but always, always surprisingly on form. As a deserving winner of the Prix Goncourt, HHhH is a fantastic read. As a dynamic assault on the genres of contemporary writing, HHhH must join that coterie of celebrated titles: it is unique.” —Charles J. Haynes, California Literary Review

“An impressive debut...HHhH is fascinating not only because of the subject matter, but also because of the immense amount of detail Binet includes. The book transports and enraptures. It also impresses upon the reader the legacy of that history. His reflections on how to write the book with thoroughness and integrity and the effect of the project on his life are examples of how important the subject and the consequences of the history are to him. Heydrich's life is not as documented as those of other high ranking Nazi officers. By researching and publishing HHhH, Binet reminds the reader that history has myriads of layers, but that they are all relevant in our contemporary world.” —Ashley McNelis, Bomb

“[HHhH is] quirky, clever...Binet makes a very perceptive and informed recording angel, one with an exceptionally clear and unfussy prose style (rendered extremely well by the translator, Sam Taylor). It doesn't hurt that he has triple-A premium material, but Binet doesn't push too hard to give the events a meaning. He lets them be the tragedy that they are, and as such they're devastating.” —Lev Grossman, Time.com

“[HHhH] 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...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... [He] has produced the only essential piece of World War II fiction in years.” —Jessica Crispin, Barnes & Noble Review

“[HHhH] is utterly compelling and ruthlessly fascinating.” —Laurence Mackin, Irish Times

“A breezily charming novel, with a thrilling story that also happens to be true, by a gifted young author...[Binet] marshals and deploys his materials with exceptional dramatic skill...By the time you reach the book's devastating finale, it's this discreet storytelling mastery... that leaves the deepest impression.” —James Lasdun, The Guardian

“A cracking book... With its double-narrative and its authorial playfulness, HHhH reads in places like a stylistic homage to WG Sebald or Italo Calvino.” —Ruadhán MacCormaic, Irish Times

“That HHhH is so devastatingly brilliant is testament to both its originality and ambition. In fact, it would not be going too far to say it is a modern masterpiece.” —Rob Minshull, ABC (Brisbane)

HHhH triumphs precisely because it not only delicately, and sometimes grippingly, depicts a major historical moment, but because it manages to depict the unique challenges of 21st-century remembrance.” —Michael Lapointe, The Globe and Mail

HHhH is brilliant.” —Michel Basilières, The Toronto Star

“[A] remarkable first novel... Binet has created a rare thing: a book that tells us stories, mixing scholarship with suspense, while simultaneously laying bare and critiquing the book's construction. It's a difficult approach, which makes the enjoyment of reading it all the more striking.” —Matthew Tiffany, Plain-Dealer (Cleveland)

“There are not enough books that blend the profound and the entertaining. This is one and it comes in a sparkling translation by novelist Sam Taylor.” —John Gardner, New Zealand Herald

“An extraordinary first novel... A literary triumph... The books final section, which recounts the assassination and subsequent manhunt in minute detail, is a masterpiece of tension, and its closing pages are extremely moving. Very few page-turners come as smart and original as this.” —The Times (London)

“This is mesmeric stuff; history brought to chilling, potent life.” —Leyla Senai, The Independent

“I really don't know how to praise this book further than to say that it changed my conception of the possibilities of literature. I cannot recommend this book more highly than saying, despite the cliche, that it is an actual must-read, both for its important content, but as importantly, for its avant-garde nature as it pushes forward the boundaries of historical fiction. (From a different lens, it represents the avant garde of teaching history. I can't imagine anyone who would read this book and consequently not feel interested in the essential questions of historiography i.e. what can we truly know about history.) Go out, find this book, devour it, and prepare to find yourself changed, in ways you could not expect.” —Joe Winkler, Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“A brilliantly profound debut about the assassination of the architect of the Holocaust... I found myself turning pages faster and faster while I read about the two men who parachuted into the countryside and slowly closed in on Heydrich, even though I knew exactly what was about to happen. Maybe you can't write a successful novel about the Holocaust. But, turns out, you can write a wonderful book--let's call it a novel--about the impossibility of writing about the Holocaust.” —Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast

“Riveting... [HHhH is] exuberant and breathless and wonderful throughout.” —Weston Cutter, Kenyon Review

HHhH is a highly original piece of work, at once charming, moving, and gripping.” —Martin Amis, author of The Pregnant Widow

“A wonderful, ambitious book, and a triumph of translation.” —Colum McCann, National Book Award-winning author of Let the Great World Spin

HHhH is an astonishing book--absorbing, moving, for the agony and acuity with which its author engages the problem of making literary art from unbearable historical fact.” —Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

“A work of absolute originality.” —Claude Lanzmann

“By the time I got to the last page of Binet's masterpiece, I had to close my eyes and rethink history. I'm rethinking it still.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

“Laurent Binet has given a new dimension to the non-fiction novel by weaving his writerly anxieties about the genre into the narrative, but his story is no less compelling for that, and the climax is unforgettable.” —David Lodge, Booker Prize-winning author of Small World and Nice Work

HHhH offers something all too rare in contemporary literature: the excitement of encountering something that feels genuinely new. Laurent Binet has thrown all the rules of authorial decorum out the window, and the result is a historical novel of the Czech resistance to the Nazis that is a playful, suspenseful delight.” —John Wray, author of Lowboy

“Read HHhH and be hooked, horrified, haunted, and (h)enthralled.” —Bernard Pivot, JDD

“[A] tour de force... Gripping... Binet demonstrates without a doubt that a self-aware, cerebral structure can be deployed in the service of a gripping historical read. [HHhH is] a perfect fusion of action and the avante-garde that deserves a place as a great WWII novel.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The story of how two Czech agents--recruited by the British secret service--assassinated Hitler's ruthless lieutenant Reinhard Heydrich in broad daylight on a Prague street in 1942 has been told by the historian. Now it is the novelist's turn. And what a turn Binet delivers! Weaving together historical fact, fictional narrative, and authorial reflection in what he labels an infranovel, Binet gives readers a close-up look at the metamorphosis of documentary truth into literary art. It is an art that makes disturbingly real the cold cruelty of a Nazi titan intent on slaughtering innocent Jews and makes inspiringly luminous the courage of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš, the men who kill him. But it is also a curiously hybrid art that foregrounds the creative artist's own struggle to wrest meaning out of his anarchic material. Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in Binet's handling of the bizarre climax of his chronicle, when Gabcik stares down Heydrich's car, only to have his gun jam, forcing Kubiš to lob a bomb, leaving the wounded Nazi leader to die days later of an infection. Readers will recognize why this brilliant work won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman--and why an English translation was imperative!” —Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)

“[HHhH is a] soul-stirring work... The account of the assassination attempt and its nail-biting aftermath is brilliantly suspenseful... Binet deserves great kudos for retrieving this fateful, half-forgotten episode, spotlighting Nazi infamy, celebrating its resisters, and delivering the whole with panache.” —Kirkus (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374169916
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/24/2012
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
1,165,503
Product dimensions:
5.74(w) x 8.38(h) x 1.08(d)

Read an Excerpt

1

 

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

Meet the Author

Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. He is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. In March 2010, his debut novel, HHhH, won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Laurent Binet is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.

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HHhH: A Novel 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 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
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Walks in
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Whats wrong?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sighed
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who is talking to me?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey
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
Who the h*** are you people?? THIS IS FOR REVIEWS NOT TO FANTASIZE OVER A FAKE LIFE BECAUSE YOURS ARE SAD JUDGING BY WHAT I AM READING
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A 15-year-old girl with tightly curled blonde hair and blue eyes walks in. She is chewing bubblegum. "I'm Skye Armelia, the new girl in town. I just got transferred here, from New Zealand."