National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Fiction: Laurent Binet, HHhH (2010; 2012 English translation)

February 21st, 2013 § 1 comment

How can you tell the main character of a story?  By the number of pages devoted to him?  I hope it’s a little more complicated than that.

Whenever I talk about the book I’m writing, I say, “My book on Heydrich.”  But Heydrich is not supposed to be the main character.  Through all the years that I carried this story around with me in my head, I never thought of giving it any other title than Operation Anthropoid (and if that’s not the title you see on the cover, you will know that I gave in to the demands of my publisher, who didn’t like it:  too SFF, too Robert Ludlum, apparently).  You see, Heydrich is the target, not the protagonist.  Everything I’ve written about him is by way of background.  Though it must be admitted that in literary terms Heydrich is a wonderful character.  It’s as if a Dr. Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature.  Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.

I’m all too aware that my two heroes are late making their entrance.  But perhaps it’s no bad thing if they have to wait.  Perhaps it will give them more substance.  Perhaps the mark they’ve made in history and on my memory might imprint itself even more profoundly in these pages.  Perhaps this long wait in the antechamber of my brain will restore some of their reality, and not just vulgar plausibility.  Perhaps, perhaps…but nothing could be less sure!  I’m not scared of Heydrich anymore.  It’s those two who intimidate me.

And yet I can see them.  Or let’s say that I am beginning to discern them. (Ch. 88, p. 136 e-book)

More than any other event of the 20th century the Holocaust has cast a shadow over our own lives, over 80 years after the Wannsee Conference and the formalization of the actions undertaken the prior year under the Einsatzgruppen and collaborators in the occupied Eastern front.  The prime actors in this horror fascinate us, almost hypnotize us from the grave.  Hitler.  Himmler.  Eichmann.  Mengele.  Those names are infamous for being involved in some form or fashion with the Endlösung.  How could such atrocities be enacted on such a mass-produced, industrial scale?  This question has haunted historians and laypeople alike ever since the extermination and concentration camps were liberated in 1944-1945.  A huge argument over this issue, the Historikerstreit (the Historians’ fight), took place in Germany as historians of World War II and the Holocaust divided over the issue of Intentionalism (the German government intended all along to commit mass genocide) versus Functionalism (that the nature of the killings and the timing occurred as a function of the war and the priorities of total war at the time).  Yet even today, nothing truly has been decided on the issue; it likely shall forever be a topic for debate, or at least as long as people can bring themselves to care deeply about the actors and the event itself.

In 2010, debuting French writer Laurent Binet’s HHhH (the acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, “Himmler’s brain is Heydrich) was published to great acclaim, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt.  In many ways, it complements and critiques a previous French bestseller/award winner, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones in its treatment of the Holocaust.  HHhH, however, is not a strictly linear novel.  Through its short (rarely more than a single page) chapters, Binet’s narrative divides itself into several streams:  a mostly straightforward historical recounting of the events of Reinhard Heydrich’s life leading up to his assassination in the occupied Czech territory in 1942; the motives and lives of those who planned and committed Heydrich’s assassination; asides that look at the interpretations of the Heydrich assassination; and the author’s own evolving reactions to and relationship to the material he is researching and reshaping into a novelistic form.  It is simultaneously very lucid in its presentation and devilishly complex in its structure.  Yet for the most part, HHhH realizes its extremely ambitious goals.

The first few dozen chapters of HHhH are mostly straightfoward in their discussion of Heydrich’s life and how his character was shaped.  Binet’s research is impressive, as he adroitly utilizes several historical accounts to recreate a sense of the subject of Heydrich as being grounded in a standard historical monograph.  Yet even in these early chapters, before the assassins are introduced, there is a subtle working of Binet the Reader into the text, as the “I” becomes not the voice of authority, but instead the destabilizing element that makes the reader pause for a moment to reconsider what he or she might have blindly accepted as fact.  This can be seen in a subtle fashion in the concluding paragraph to Ch. 49, in response to Heydrich’s directive, as the assistant leader of the SS in 1947, for the German regular police, the Kripo, and the Gestapo to go beyond the letter of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws and send the Jewish women arrested for illicit sexual relations with gentiles to the concentration camps:

In other words, when the Nazi leaders are – for once – ordered to show a degree of moderation, they are unafraid to thwart the Führer’s will.  This is interesting when you consider that obedience to orders, in the name of military honor and sworn oaths, was the only argument put forward after the war to justify these men’s crimes. (p. 81 e-book)

This interjection of opinion becomes more apparent in the latter half of HHhH, as he opines on Flaubert’s Salammbô in relation to his (Benet’s) own struggle to corral his bucking bronco of a text into novel form.  These interjections, which in most cases should be annoying because they break the flow of the historical events being interpreted here, actually manage to provide the novel with a greater depth, as they illustrate Binet’s own “real time” struggles with the implications of the material he is researching in light of other works on the subject (including Littell, although most of his observations regarding The Kindly Ones was redacted by his editor; the “missing chapters” were published here in 2012).  One of the few observations that did survive his editor’s cuts provides an incisive look at not just Littell’s book, but also current understandings of National Socialism and the Holocaust:

A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue, Jonathan Littell’s protagonist in The Kindly Ones, “rings true because he is the mirror of his age.”  What?  No!  He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age:  a postmodern nihilist, essentially.  At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism.  On the contrary, he displays an often critical detachment toward National Socialist doctrine – and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time.  On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts…but of course!  How did I not see it before?  Suddenly, everything is clear.  The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.” (Ch. 204, p. 316 e-book)

In this single paragraph, Binet goes straight to the heart of the dissonance that exists between the motives and actions of the actors of the 1940s and how we, after not just the revelations of the death camps but also the subsequent horrors in places such as Cambodia, Uganda, Rwanda, Bosnia, and now Syria have chosen to underscore certain elements of these narratives at the expense of other components.  Binet says as much when he declares in Ch. 239 that despite having “a colossal amount of information about Heydrich’s funeral” that it’s “too bad, because I really don’t care.”  In another context, say that of an “authentic” historical account, this would be tantamount to willful distortion of the historical record.  But speaking not just as a novelist, but also as a reader of the period, he notes:

My story has as many holes in it as a novel.  But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur.  Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision. (p. 378 e-book)

It certainly can be said that there are “holes” in HHhH.  The narrative, fractured as it is, often is frayed to the point of nearly dissolving into a mess.  Yet Binet does an admirable job of rescuing the novel from its own centrifugal forces by acknowledging frankly that it is by decentering the subject (whether it be Heydrich alone or Heydrich as representative of the forces that led to the Holocaust) that we can even begin to grasp the enormity of the issue, not just in the past but also in our present today.  HHhH works precisely because there is no singular explanation that can be provided; it is in the muddled confusion of those times (and our own tortured relationships to it) where greater truths can be found.  HHhH is far from a “perfect” novel, but its imperfections serve to affect us more than any technically perfect world could achieve.  In a crowded National Book Critics Circle Award field for Fiction, HHhH is perhaps the most ambitious and most moving of the finalists.  It certainly is worthy of reader consideration, even despite its (intentional) flaws.

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