HHhH – Final Thoughts

HHhH by Laurent Binet, trans Sam Taylor

If you don’t know anything about HHhH, you may want to read my previous post first which describes a bit more about it, and the halfway hang-ups I experienced reading this book…
… I’ve now finished it, and it was one hell of a story. I remain, however, equally fascinated and irritated by this volume – I still can’t call it a novel.

The true story of the plot to assassinate Heydrich was thoroughly gripping and actively told, mostly in the present tense which builds up the suspense well.  The portraits painted of Heydrich, Hitler, Himmler and the other top Nazis show them to be the monsters we know they were.

But this is not just a straight-forward novelised account of Heydrich’s life and Operation Anthropoid. That is presented as an episodic novel within another novel following an/the author’s writing of the book.

This was where the book failed for me, because I just didn’t like the ‘author’, whether he is Binet himself or a fictional counterpart.

In particular, I didn’t like his snarkiness about other authors who have written around the same subject, (not that I’ve read any of them, but that’s not the point). Jonathan Littell’s doorstop of a novel The Kindly Ones is put down as “Houellebecq does Nazism.”  He also criticises a 1960 novel by Alan Burgess called Seven Men at Daybreak for waxing lyrical about the flight which will drop the parachutists into Czechoslovakia. Hang on!  They’re both novels – they’re allowed to blend fact with fiction for the sake of the narrative aren’t they?  Binet’s ‘author’ raises himself above them …

Once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints. No ordinary novel would encumber itself with three characters sharing the same name – unless the author were after a very particular effect. …
… This must be very tiresome and confusing for the reader. In a fiction, you’d just do away with the problem. Colonel Moravec would become Colonel Novak, for instance, and the Moravec family would be transformed into the Svigar family – why not? – while the traitor  might be rebaptised with a fanciful name like Nutella or Kodak or Prada. But of course I am not going to play that game.

and later he says:
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.

None of this endeared me any further to him.  I realise that this is all about exploring the role of truth in an historical novel, but I found it to be too clever for its own good and even a bit heavy-handed in going on about it so much.  (6.5/10)

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However, you may have a totally different experience with this non-fiction metanovel. Here are a few other bloggers reviews to get a different picture: Just William’s Luck, Winston’s Dad, The Only Way is Reading, and 366 Days, 366 Books.

One good thing from this reading experience is that I am now keen to read more WWII books and novels. Already in my TBR are two by Primo Levi for instance, plus Anja Klabunde’s biography of Magda Goebbels (the scene in Downfall when she gave her children cyanide pills – sends a shiver down my spine to even think of it), and Emma Craigie’s fictionalised tale of Hitler’s youngest daughter.

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I received my ARC via Amazon Vine.  To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
HHhH by Laurent Binet
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
Magda Goebbels by Anja Klabunde
Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie
Downfall [DVD]


8 thoughts on “HHhH – Final Thoughts

  1. Thank you for the link to my own review on this book. I understand exactly what you mean about Binet’s style and the role he takes himself within the narrative. It took me a while to get into it but I eventually came to like his style – though I can see why it might irritate! It’s a cracking story though as you say. I read that Binst is due to be in London next week giving a talk about the book – I can’t go otherwise I’d have loved to ask why he chose the role for himself that he did!

  2. I found his interruptions annoying at times ,but I loved the other parts his historic parts were well written almost non fiction in a way ,all the best stu

    • I agree the historic parts were really good – they kept me reading, especially as I didn’t know what happened to Heydrich.

  3. I had some problems with this book too, but it caused me to think about my own assumptions and expectations regarding historical fiction, especially when based on “real” characters. In the end I thought it was rather well done, but I did struggle while I was reading it.

    • Violet, I’ll (grudgingly) accept that it was well done, but I didn’t like the narrator’s voice, finding him rather snobby and so inflexible about his fiction. He kept on going about it being a novel, so surely even just a tiny bit of artistic licence would be acceptable?

      With historical novels in general, I’ve always been able to divorce fiction and fact and just enjoy the tale, going to the history books proper if I want real detail.

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