Consider, for a moment, the appeal to be found in the Nazi assassination. The glee with which we enjoy the death of a Nazi goes far beyond the fact that it’s guilt-free, justified cruelty because they’re so evil—though, as Stieg Larrson’s torture scenes taught us, that’s certainly part of it. Nazi murder conjures not just grim satisfaction but a sense of elation, of “righteousness”-—the kind found in the Bible but also the kind found on a skate park in the 1990s. There’s something thrilling about watching Major Strasser double over, plot significance aside, and even kids can cheer at those melting Aryan faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to say nothing of the thousands of World War II video games. Killin’ Natzis, as Brad Pitt once put it, is good, clean fun.
The point being that the attraction of Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH (FSG, 336 pages, $26.00) is inbuilt. The story concerns the daring assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, an architect of the Holocaust and the so-called “hangman of Prague,” who became the governor of what used to be Czechoslovakia after the Nazis took over. Heydrich was assassinated in 1942 by a two-man team—a Czech and a Slovak, both trained to kill by the British and dropped behind enemy lines, Inglourious Basterds-style. After stopping his Mercedes on a street in Prague, they engaged in a shootout and blew him up with a bomb. It’s a novel-ready story, maybe even summer blockbuster-ready, from the diabolical villain to the selfless heroes out of Joseph Campbell 101. The story even comes with real-life irony and symbolism, and so to evaluate Mr. Binet’s novel is to assess its telling.
HHhH is beyond question entertaining and good (it won the Prix Goncourt’s first novel award in France in 2010), but it’s also unorthodox in a way that, arguably, hinders its success. Mr. Binet calls the book an “infranovel,” and about a quarter of its short chapters are present-day ruminations on the writing of the book you now hold in your hands, how to best tell the tale in the most accurate way possible. The effect is a “personal story”—and Mr. Binet stresses this, perhaps anticipating criticism that he doesn’t mention the Holocaust much—of both the plot to kill Heydrich and his own obsession with it.
Given that HHhH is so firmly grounded in fact, a busy person might want to know the extent to which it improves upon the Wikipedia entry for Operation Anthropoid, which it does considerably. It takes us to the places that demonstrate our protagonist’s wickedness and our antagonists’ heroism. Yes, Heydrich is the star, the “Blonde Beast” who plays the violin, flies a fighter plane like it’s a noble steed, and may have been into S&M. We see him during Night of the Long Knives as he dispatches orders from the headquarters of the SS. Put a gun in his hand, he orders his thugs, tell them he’s committed suicide. You caught another playing tennis and he ran into the woods? Chase him down! (A corollary to the theory that it’s excellent to watch people killing Nazis: it’s also terrific to watch Nazis kill other Nazis. Philip K. Dick’s fake Axis politics in The Man in the High Castle were, somehow, a blast). These scenes of our main character’s crimes both attract and repel like those moments on The Sopranos when Tony reminded you that he may be a little too efficiently cruel to be called human. Heydrich, gun cocked, watches a man bleed to death in a prison rather than put him out of his misery. And it all happened! You almost can’t believe it.
You’re allowed to be melodramatic when you’re grounded in fact, and this also works out well for our hagiographied heroes, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, who meet their end fighting waves of Nazis in the basement of a tiny Prague church. One of the novel’s more stirring passages involves their departure from England. Gabčík hesitates next to the plane that will drop him outside Prague and Colonel Moravec, who’s trained the boys, is sure that he’s having second thoughts about trying to kill the most dangerous man in the Reich. Instead, Gabčík tells him, he forgot to pay a tab at the local restaurant. Would the colonel mind paying it for him? There’s so much in this moment—the stoic unwavering, the fundamental goodness of someone who doesn’t want to rob a restaurant of 10 pounds, and of course, the suicidal nature of his mission. You can’t help pumping a fist at that. It almost doesn’t matter if this actually happened, though it did, as we’re informed by a reference to Moravec’s memoirs, a reference weaved into the anecdote so subtly that it doesn’t disrupt what John Gardner called the fictive dream.
Factual clarification is the role of most of the author’s meditations on his own book, though this goes hand in hand with the process of invention, which he also describes. They’re mostly isolated chapters, but are sometimes interspersed in the scenes they reflect on. We’re with Mr. Binet as he works out where he should put a character as he surreptitiously enters a country by train. He could sit anywhere. Where would it be best to put him? By the door, that makes sense. He’d want to see everyone who enters the car. We feel the paranoia of the moment reflected in the chapter’s creation, and it feels appropriate. Though Mr. Binet is the author, wasn’t that character, in a way, the author of this scene? And weren’t the Brits authors when they decided, for symbolic purposes, that they wanted a Czech and a Slovak for the job? Weren’t the French when they embargoed the Reich and deprived Heydrich of the penicillin that might have saved him? Mr. Binet views himself as just a steward of history and will go out of his way to name names, just to have them on the record, even if he doesn’t have time to create proper characters from every hero in the resistance. He’ll analyze other works of World War II fiction (apparently his French publisher had to excise 20 pages of his bashing the competition, The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell) or mention how he just visited a setting from the previous chapter with his beautiful girlfriend. Their effectiveness varies—you probably would have noticed on your own that there are many two-men pairings in this book, just as there are a lot of initials (SA, SD, SS, HH—the title refers to a phrase said to be circulating Germany at the time, “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), and it’s unclear what any of that really means since it’s just … true.
Whether or not you like Mr. Binet’s asides is a matter of taste, though you’d better like them if you choose to finish the book because they continue through to the end, not stopping even for the climax. After a few pages of psyching himself up for the actual assassination, albeit a little doubtfully (“How can I convey even the tiniest idea of what those three men lived through?”), Heydrich’s Mercedes finally leaves the castle where he has installed himself as protector and then everything stops so that Mr. Binet can tell us about a relevant and little-known book he’s been reading by George Sand. Then we’re back to the men waiting for Heydrich’s car, and some enjoyable tension, soon broken (“He’s not coming.” New paragraph. “But obviously I wouldn’t have written this whole book if Heydrich wasn’t coming.”) and we jump into the second person to find ourselves in Heydrich’s pompous brain. Then Gabčík tries to fire. His gun jams (“I can’t resist cheap literary effects,” writes our author and then adds, a little later, that this really did happen though), then nobody moves (“It’s like a Western!”) and there’s a chapter-long aside about how the author has just begun reading William Vollmann’s Europe Central. At this point, the bomb has yet to go off.
A variety of things might affect your opinion of these asides, the degree to which you like to learn from your novels being one of them, but it is possible to do justice to the heroes of World War II and the victims of the Holocaust without a rigorous grounding in fact, and Europe Central actually does just that. Like HHhH, that novel is a series of well researched vignettes but, by contrast, it’s one that doesn’t hesitate to invent details—like a love triangle between Dmitri Shostakovich, the director Roman Karmen and his wife—in the service of recreating the dark universe that Russia and Germany occupied during the war. Mr. Vollmann’s an expressionist. His narrators are intelligence agents, his footnotes in the back and his creations vivid. You will understand how a captured Russian general comes to think that a Nazi-funded anti-Bolshevik army might be a good idea, not realizing that he’s a collaborator. You’ll come to view an SS man who works at concentration camps throughout the war as a hero—he is, in fact, anti-Nazi, and joined up to throw off the occasional Zyclon B shipment. If that doesn’t sound like heroism to you, well, that’s the point of the book. You have to read it to understand how degraded heroism was at the time. It was enough to make the killing rooms slightly less efficient—he couldn’t have done anything more.
It might be that Mr. Binet’s assassination target is too high-profile for this kind of treatment, but you can’t say that he had to write it the way he did. Mr. Binet chooses to end the story on a seriously cheesy note, a jump back in time to an envisioned meeting between the two men as they flee what used to be their country. Also on the boat are women and children, the kind who will be slaughtered by the Nazis in retribution for the death of Heydrich, and then, out of nowhere, there’s Natacha, that beautiful girlfriend, who has really only popped up in a few places in the text to comment on what a funny book it is that her boyfriend is writing. Mr. Binet puts himself on the boat too, hoping he’s done the two men justice. The ending might strike you differently but for me it underscored the arrogance that Mr. Binet’s “I’m so unworthy of history” act belies. He seems to think that his words matter, that they can somehow make him nearly equivalent to the good men who murdered the genocidal maniac, and that if he doesn’t tell the story properly his big powerful words will hurt history. This is laughable. History is strong. History is vast. World War II and its victims are never going to care about what some French guy thinks, no matter how attractive his girlfriend is.
Mr. Binet can rest easily on the boat, if he likes. His main job was to paint a picture of good and evil in big bold colors and for the most part he’s done this. But they might have been bolder.
Correction 5/16: An earlier version of this review misstated the nationality of the narrator’s girlfriend.