“HHhH” by Laurent Binet


I would not have read HHhH, written in French by Laurent Binet and translated by Sam Taylor, except it’s a contender in The Morning News Tournament of Books, and I’m so glad I did. This is a head-tippingly original and thought-provoking book.

It’s billed as a novel, but it’s not, exactly. It’s Binet’s attempt to tell the history of Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi villain I’d never even heard of but will now never forget. It’s the true story of how two men, one a Czech, another a Slovak, were tasked to assassinate Heydrich, also known as The Butcher of Prague. Taylor pieces together documents, his own reactions, some fictionalizations, which he then identifies as fictional, into a mesmerizing taken on historical fiction. It’s unapologetically subjective, with Binet and his biases appearing regularly. He’ll write something early on, and revise it later. Perhaps my favorite example of this is how, as the story is coming to an end, he notes how difficult it is to write, and includes the dates, so we can see how long it took the author to bring this story to a close.

I could include exemplary bits, but I am tired of typing, and really, you should just go read this book. Especially if you’re a writer. Or you like historical fiction. Or WWII. Oh, just read it.

4 Responses to ““HHhH” by Laurent Binet”

  1. Kate Says:

    So, I actually think it’s a novel, straight up. I think Binet in the book is actually “Binet,” the character. I think the novel owes a huge debt to “How to Tell a True War Story,” by Tim O’Brien. I don’t have my kindle with me, but highlighted passages over and over where he was clearly messing with our understanding of a historical novel, where he was undermining our understanding of “truth,” of fiction, of storytelling, of history. He has a place where “Binet” writes about how horrible made up conversation is in historical novels and then promptly does horrible made up conversation. He compares “Binet’s” breakup with his girlfriend with the feelings a Soviet general had when losing horribly to the Nazis. He references all sorts of post-modern understandings of historical fiction, and then finally, finally references Borges.

    I loved this book, and I think there are multiple articles to be written on it.

  2. girldetective Says:

    YESSS! It is thought provoking about war and writing about war in the same way that The Things They Carried was, to me. And you are right, about all the stuff messing with us and it being more novel than history, but I like that it’s possible to read it any which way.

    I particularly liked one point toward the beginning where he mentioned what he wanted to call the book, and said if it didn’t have that title, then it wasn’t because of him. I also liked his reluctance at the end to narrate how the siege ended because he liked his characters/subjects so much (and so did I.)

  3. Buried In Print Says:

    It was TMNT that dragged this onto my reading radar as well, but as soon as I’d read the first couple of pages, I knew this wasn’t going to be one of those returned-unread-and-unloved library borrowings. So intriguing! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it and was just as glad you skipped some bits out of tiredness, as I’d not even a tiny worry about spoilers. Thanks!

  4. Kate Says:

    YES!!! about the title part.

    What a great book.