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.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.74(w) x 8.38(h) x 1.08(d)|
About the Author
Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, on July 19, 1972. He graduated from Sciences Po, the CELSA Paris (DESS), and the University of Kent, where he completed an MA in European studies. 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, HHhH won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Binet is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.
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
What People are Saying About This
"This fluid translation by Taylor is a superb choice for lovers of historical literary works and even international thrillers. Most highly recommended." -Library Journal Starred Review
A Conversation with Laurent Binet
HHhH is a very mysterious title. What does it mean?
It was a sort of SS joke that meant 'Himmler's brain is called Heydrich' (Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich), suggesting that the real boss of the SS was not Himmler, but his right-hand man.
How did you come to be interested in Heydrich, and more particularly in the two heroes sent by the British secret services to assassinate him?
By chance, as is the case for almost everything that happens to us. As part of my military service, I was sent to Slovakia to give French classes to Slovakian soldiers. My father had told me vaguely about this story, so I started asking questions, and the first details that I heardthe machine gun that jammed, the SS troops trying to drown the parachutists in the cryptaroused my curiosity.
Could you explain how you researched and wrote the book? For example, the text is based around an author who is very much presentyourself. The story develops through a series of very short chapters, some consisting of only a few lines. Why did you choose this particular form? Was it even a choice?
I wrote this book as if I were solving a puzzle: 250 chapters written out of order, based on the historical information that I was researching, films or novels that I found on the same subject, and my thoughts on the difficulties of writing an account of a true story without betraying the subject or the characters, while at the same time maintaining the appeal and suspense of a novel in its narration.
The book is being published all over the world. How does that feel, to see your story reproduced in a multitude of different languages? Have you noticed any interesting differences of interpretation between different countries?
I am particularly happy about that because, even if I dreamed that the book would be successful, I had never thought that it would be translated. There are lots of questions that are repeated from one country to another, but there are also specific differences. In Spain, for instance, I had lots of questions about the dialogue. I have no idea why, but I was very pleased because it's a question that I find fascinating.
Who have you discovered lately?
I have been reading William T. Vollman's Europe Central for years. I was so dazzled by the first few pages that I couldn't go any further; I just kept re-reading them. A few months later, I started again . . . then I stopped, started again, stopped . . . I'm halfway through it now. I envy a country that produces such brilliant writers. At the moment, I'm reading Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 72. I have professional reasons for doing this, as I'm covering the French presidential election campaign. I love the freedom of its voice. I hope my book about the presidential campaign will have some of that spirit. I recently read a book by a French author, Jean Rolin, called Le Ravissement de Britney Spears (The Rapture of Britney Spears), in reference to a title by Marguerite Duras, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein. But, well, it doesn't really have anything to do with Duras. This is the pitch: a French secret agent who does not have a driver's license is sent to LA to protect Britney Spears, who is being threatened with abduction by an Islamist group. Very American, but also very 70s and French: you should translate it. You'd probably enjoy it.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I sought this out because I'd heard it was supposed to be a historical novel that critiques the idea of historical novels, which sounded fascinating to me. But in actuality, it's not really a novel at all, by even my extremely broad definition of the term. And it's not a serious history book, certainly, since there's no bibliography. And it fails perhaps worst of all as any kind of critique, despite the metafictional flourishes. If it succeeds at all, it's as pop-history, written in the same tone as those silly, lurid, crowd-pleasing Hitler documentaries on the History channel.
A spellbinding retelling of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by a Czech and a Slovak acting parachuted into occupied Czechoslovakia by British intelligence. It provides a mini-biography of Heydrich, his rise to power, and his brutality--not just as one of the architects of the Final Solution but also as the overlord of occupied Czechoslovakia (or technically occupied Bohemia and Moravia as Slovakia was a German puppet state). It also tells somewhat more briefly, likely reflecting the dearth of information, the story of how the assassins, Jan Kubi¿ and Jozef Gab¿ík, escaped the Nazis, ended up in England, were trained for the mission and parachuted back in.The conclusion following Heydrich's assassination is even more heartbreaking than the rest of the book, depicting both the brutal and borderline random German reprisals and the tragic deaths of Kubi¿ and Gab¿ík.Judging from the few reviews I quickly skimmed, I'm in the minority in liking the authors method which is to tell the story in short chapters (about 270 in all) with frequent postmodern intrusions of the authorial voice talking about how he is writing the book, the books he read to research it, where he is not sure of the facts (in some cases going back and correcting earlier chapters), how he is incapable of rendering the full tribute that the Czechoslovak partisans deserve, etc. I found the story was so powerful that these frequent authorial intrusions did not diminish it in any way. And in fact they enhanced it by making you more confident in the credibility of the story, which itself allows you to be more immersed in it, because the author is so clear about the limits of his telling that you are that much more confident in what is there. (Plus I got a few more recommendations of books I had never heard of but now am interested in reading.)
This was a very differently written type of historical fiction; a stream of consciousness novel where a narrator who happens to be writing a book about the assassination of Heydrich lets the reader in on all his thought processes, feelings, and personal life. In the beginning I found this fascinating as the narrator imparts many little known facts (at least by me) of Heydrich's early life and marriage, the forming of the Nazi party and Hitler and the Night of Long Knives and the forming of his security system. By the end of the book, however, I just found the narrator tedious and wished he would just get on a tell the story already.