HhhH (Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich or ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’) is a book about Reinhard Heydrich and his assassination. Except it isn’t. It is actually a book about writing a book about Reinhard Heydrich and his assassination. Binet, throughout HhhH, provides the reader with a deep background of Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague. He provides an account of Heydrich’s upbringing and early career as well as his later successes as one of the most terrifying Nazi leaders. Alongside all this deep and well-researched history, Binet also provides the readers with his own philosophical concerns and personal insecurities ranging from the purpose of writing a novel, to his relationship with his partner and his doubts about his sources.
HhhH is divided up into two very unequal parts. The first part chronicles the background leading up to the assassination of Heydrich. It details the life of Heydrich and the lives of the assassins, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík. It goes through, in detail, the rise of Heydrich from his days as a young violist and duelist, his dismissal from the navy to his career as a Nazi and Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Concurrently, Binet also discusses (in far less detail) the lives of Kubiš and Gabčík and the extensive planning that went into Operation Anthropoid. Part one ends with Kubiš and Gabčík ambushing Heydrich’s car and the start of the assassination. The build up to this moment is slow, intense and respectful. Part two (which is only a handful of pages) changes all of this. The tempo in comparison feels out of place. Binet accounts, day-by-day and hour-by-hour, the final moments of Kubiš, Gabčík and their allies and the carefully constructed postmodern novel becomes little more than an action thriller.
Throughout the novel, it is clear that Binet and I share two interests. The first is a historical interest in the Second World War and Reinhard Heydrich in particular. My interest in Heydrich partly stemms from a talk by Robert Gerwarth a few years, during which he provided a rich but very personal account of one of the most dangerous men of the Reich. Gerwarth conveyed the insecurity of Heydrich and the Nazis well, demonstrating how even someone as powerful as Heydrich could not escape or ignore accusations about his past and heritage (even when the head of German counter-intelligence, Heydrich was not above accusations about his Jewish roots). Despite this common interest, Binet tries desperately to make his reader understand that this is not a book about Heydrich but a book about his assassination and ‘one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history’. Unfortunately, Binet does not do this very successfully and for the most part this is a book about Heydrich: neither the book or the author can escape the monster of its own inspiration.
The second common interest is Milan Kundera. Here, I feel the need to confess that Kundera is easily my favourite author. Every book of his I own is dog-eared, covered in pencil marks and annotations. Part of my love for Kundera stems from his ability to express himself on the page, not just as an author but as a part of the work himself: Kundera steps off the ink to reveal himself, to discuss his thought processes with you, and does all of this without compromising the literary presence of his characters. Kundera even when he’s overtly telling you that this is a novel, that his characters are fictional, makes it all feel so much more real. Binet tries to emulate Kundera’s style heavily and he does not hide this. But I fear that Binet is not able to use this style to the same effect. Perhaps this is because Kundera’s stories, although influenced and shaped by history, are his stories. They are his own fictional worlds based around a real world. Binet, however, is telling someone else’s stories and, for me, it doesn’t quite work. Binet’s attempts to break the fourth wall often raises some awkward questions about its integrity. Binet, for example, criticises and attacks other novels for their inaccuracies, for not being able to substantiate their accounts but he is just as guilty of this throughout. In some cases, I would not have questioned the artistic licence of the author had he not inadvertently made me a few chapters earlier.
However, Binet’s HhhH is still an impressive debut novel and one that I would certainly recommend to anyone interested in Operation Anthropoid, Heydrich, or the Czech Resistance. I would recommend it as a good conventional novel – not as a postmodern one.