HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor

Harvill Secker, pp.336, 16.99

HHhH is a prize-winning French novel about a writer writing a novel about the plot to kill the Gestapo boss Reinhard Heydrich. A lot of people reckon it’s a big deal — Martin Amis, Mario Vargas Llosa, me — so naturally there’s a backlash afoot. In a fit of territorial pissing disguised as an interview, Michael Burleigh revealed that Laurent Binet ‘does not even read German’ (which HHhH admits on page 28) and professed surprise that his research failed to take in a Heydrich biography published (as Burleigh didn’t say) almost two years after HHhH first came out.

I suppose part of the problem is that Binet asks for trouble with clever-dick lines like this one: ‘This scene is not really useful, and on top of that I practically made it up. I don’t think I’m going to keep it.’ HHhH has two stories to tell in this self-aware style. One (pure horror) shows how Heydrich rose to viceroy in what was Czechoslovakia. The other (lionhearted derring-do) describes the patient tooling-up of the offshore resistance movement that sent Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš to assassinate, against almost impossible odds, the heavily guarded Heydrich as he drove through Prague on 27 May 1942. Binet reconstructs these events with help from memoirs, photographs, movies, museum exhibits — and his own speculation, at which his lover is ever ready to scoff. It’s fresh, honest and exciting.

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Read it in French if you can. This translation changes Simone Veil to Simone Weil, Tunis to Tunisia, and Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent. Binet’s half-brother becomes a brother-in-law. Heydrich says 36 Jews were murdered on Kristallnacht, one more than stated previously. There are cuts as well as slips. Our presumed ignorance or impatience may account for lost lines about, say, medieval Bohemia; but why does Heydrich no longer vow to shove his deputy into a mass grave? Why no nod to his ‘air of competence and authority’ as he announces a plan to deport Czechs to Auschwitz?Is it so that we don’t think Binet’s a Nazi?

Far better to have HHhH in English than not at all, of course, yet more could have been preserved, in terms of tone as well as detail. ‘You might wish to remember this. It turns out to be important,’ writes Anglo-Binet, after he mentions for the first time Gabcik’s ‘shit’ British machine gun (‘une vraie merde’), the shitness of which proves crucial. The parallel line is ‘Une vraie merde, tiens donc…’ (‘A piece of shit, fancy…’), i.e. more of a wink than a finger-wag. The French expects you to know the story already; the English worries you won’t keep up.

A finger-wagging tendency is latent here, to be fair. The second world war was ‘another age — one where, each day, people eagerly look forward not to sports results but to news from the Russian front’. Of Vichy, Binet asks, ‘How many World Cups will we have to win in order to erase such a stain?’ You would never guess that he used to be a schoolteacher.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Fiction, French, Novel