HHhH – Halfway Hang-ups

HHhH by Laurent Binet, trans Sam Taylor

HHhH is the book du jour, the one that’s getting the blog-inches, mostly giving it glowing reviews. It won the Prix Goncourt in France, and Mario Vargas Llosa thinks it “magnificent.”

For anyone who hasn’t encountered it yet, HHhH is the story of Operation Anthropoid, in which two Czechoslovakian parachutists were sent on a mission to assassinate Nazi poster-boy Reinhard Heydrich, ‘the hangman of Prague’.

I don’t usually write posts when I’m halfway through a book, but as much as I’m enjoying fascinated by HHhH, I’m having slight problems with it. The cover proclaims “All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true.”  But it’s a novel!  However you start reading it, and it’s all about an author – the actual  author? – who is researching Op Anth.  We have a story within a story, the author’s framing narrative, and his version of Heydrich’s life and the plot to end it.

The ‘author’ tells us about film depictions of Heydrich (including the rather brilliant Conspiracy with Kenneth Branagh).  He debates with himself about what to leave in the book, and what to leave out. His girlfriend berates him for writing a cheesy sentence which imagines Himmler going red with apoplexy.  He wishes that he could have written some better dialogue than documented discussions report.  All this makes me feel that HHhH is less of a novel, and more of a ‘making of’ type of documentary book.

I normally don’t have any problems with this kind of metafictional concept, I am a Paul Auster fan after all!  I am having problems reading HHhH as a novel though. It feels more like Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall which I read/reviewed earlier this year; that was a mixture of memoir and reportage – which is what HHhH feels like too. That added assertion that everything is true just adds to the non-novel feel.

All this adds up to HHhH being slightly hard going for me.  In the beginning sections, I spent far too much time trying to decide whether the author in the book is the real author, or a fiction, and maybe that’s why I’ve struggled slightly.  I’m nearly halfway through now and I won’t give up as the subject matter is too important to abandon.

So is this a novel, or is it a novelisation of a non-fictional topic, or something else?
Did you have any problems with this format?
Should I be bothered by this?

* * * * *
I obtained my ARC through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
HHhH by Laurent Binet, pub Harvill Secker, May 3, Hardback 338pp.
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder
Conspiracy [2001] – DVD starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci


11 thoughts on “HHhH – Halfway Hang-ups

  1. I don’t think you should be bothered by this, but you should ask whether you are enjoying it. I really fancy this book (the subject more than anything else, plus I loved Stasiland) but whenever you feel like an author is perhaps being a bit *too* clever-clever, you should have the right to say “you know what, it just ain’t working for me”!

    • Mark, I am enjoying and being irritated by it in equal measure I think! I don’t know the ending of the real story though, so I will definitely continue…

  2. I went through a similar debate about the role of the ‘author’ within the narrative when I started ‘HHhH’ but I quickly got used to it and by the end I was in Vargas Llosa’s ‘magnificent’ camp! I thought it was a brilliant read. Having said that the unusual structure and style didn’t get in the way of my enjoying it – but I can understand the almost contradictory nature of the book might be off-putting. In fact I got to labelling it in my mind as a non-fiction novel which summed up the contradiction for me and let me get on with enjoying it. I hope it gets better for you!

    • Funnily enough Col, after getting this off my chest, I’ve made good progress with the book, and am enjoying it more and more – although there was a section where he got snarky about another author’s novel about the op (yes, a proper novel) for adding descriptive passages about getting ready to parachute that really annoyed me!

  3. I think that this would be far more my cup of tea if it was reportage like Anna Funder’s Stasiland rather than someone trying to be clever with fiction )

    • I think it’s because he’s masquerading one as the other. It’s reportage (through research rather than interviews) pretending to be a novel. However I’m getting on a lot better with it now and dying to know what happened to the gallant parachutists.

  4. I loved this book – being another of the ones that gave it a glowing review. Fair points around is it a novel/reportage/non-fiction – but none of that bothered me, That’s part of its genius I think – making us think about how historical fiction works. I’m happy whatever it is/ is called! Asessing to what degree Binet is the narrator was the game I was playing through most of this – he says he is in interviews, but is just that him being playful? Had a few quibbles – like when he corrects himself as if the book was written in one and not edited – but, by and large, very impressed with it. hope you feel the same by the time you finish! Jim

  5. Pingback: HHhH – Final Thoughts « Gaskella

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