“Show what actually happened” was once a dictum for historians. Luckily, writers of historical fiction did not follow suit. “On peut violer l’histoire à condition de lui faire de beaux enfants,” argued Alexandre Dumas, recognising a creative license without which the writing of War and Peace, The Red and the Black, and Radetzky March would have been tricky. Concerned about giving a fair account of ancient Carthage in Salammbô, Flaubert wrote in his letters: “It’s history, I know that. But if a novel is as boring as a scientific book…”
Flaubert’s anxiety is cited in HHhH, the acclaimed and much-discussed novel by Laurent Binet, who nevertheless has other ideas about the novelist’s prerogative to play fast and loose with facts. HHhH tells the story of the assassination of Reynhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. Heydrich was, by most accounts, a Nazi caricature: aryan, militaristic, brutally efficient and efficiently brutal, he rose through the ranks to become head of the intelligence wing of the SS and right-hand-man to Heinrich Himmler (the title of the novel refers to what other Nazis said about Heydrich’s relationship to his boss: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich—“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). Hitler referred to him as “the man with the iron heart”; others nicknamed him “the Blond Beast.” He organised Kristallnacht, and chaired the infamous Wannsee conference, where he presented plans for the deportation of 11 million Jews from every country in Europe. The minutes were taken by Adolf Eichmann.
But HHhH is not just a retelling of the familiar story of Heydrich. Rather, as Binet is at pains to point out, his “two heroes” are Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík, a Czech and a Slovak respectively, who assassinated Heydrich with the support of the British and Edvard Benes’s government-in-exile in London. The Nazis exacted vengeance by destroying the nearby town of Lidice, murdering its entire adult male population. Kubiš and Gabcík, along with five other resisters, were discovered in a Prague church, where they eventually committed suicide after holding out for hours against hundreds of SS troops.
Binet has a deep sympathy for the assassins and their fate. After describing Heydrich’s funeral, where Hitler made a short speech and during which Kubiš and Gabcík were lying low in their hideout, he concludes: “I see the beautiful stone statues on the balustrade of the bridge with swastikas beneath them, and I feel slightly sick. I think I’d rather take my mattress to the gallery in the church, if they’ve got any room for me there.” And, as a reader, you believe him. Binet has invested a lot of himself in researching and writing this book. His narratorial interventions suggest that the whole process was cathartic. As he introduces his heroes, a third of the way into the book, he writes, “perhaps the mark they’ve made in history and on my memory might imprint itself even more profoundly in these pages. Perhaps this long wait in the antechamber of my brain will restore some of their reality, and not just vulgar plausibility.”
“Vulgar plausibility”: a peculiar phrase to use about two men who have streets named after them, who are heroes in their respective countries, and whose war efforts have been dramatised repeatedly in print and on screen. But then Binet is a stickler for the truth. He has an austere sense of responsibility to depict the exact events of his characters’ lives, and is not shy in castigating other artists who do not, or have not, felt the same. Films and novels that deal in “glib falsification,” that are “forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories,” he holds in contempt. He recounts how a friend, after reading a draft of a chapter that depicts Heydrich’s role in the Night of the Long Knives (when Hitler and his supporters carried out a series of political murders) seemed surprised that the scene had not, in fact, been conjured out of thin air. “No, it’s not invented!” Binet retorts. “What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism?”
Binet insists that “inventing a character to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence.” But this fetishising of accuracy is stretched to the extreme. Take, for instance, this bout of anxiety after an uncharacteristically emotive passage on Gabcík’s departure from Slovakia for England: “How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet—a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out he liked only coffee. To make him put on two coats, when perhaps he had only one… I am ashamed of myself.” Coats and coffee—who cares? Why worry about “evidence” like that?
In passages such as this (and there are many), one starts to feel uneasy about Binet’s motivation in writing this book in this way. On the one hand, Binet’s interjections reveal his genuine concern for the story of Heydrich’s assassins and how it is remembered. He quotes the anti-Nazi poet Saint-Jean Perse in order “to pay homage to these men, even if they are, in truth, above all praise.” Binet claims that it is because of this desire to assure their remembrance by posterity, to “make them understand” that their actions were not futile, that he refuses to reduce Kubiš and Gabcík to puppets, their actions to literature.
But more often than not, Binet interrupts the narrative not to give insight into his heroes’ struggle but to articulate his disgust at the “puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention” in general. This formalistic angst, this aesthetic agenda, begins to feel like the real purpose of HHhH. Without it, this would simply be one man’s postmodern take on a familiar story from the second world war. “I just hope,” Binet writes at the start of the book, that “however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.” We don’t need books like HHhH to help us see historical reality; we need them to help us relate to it. That, however, is not Binet’s crusade. His crusade is against “the veneer of fiction,” pure and simple.
Binet’s fanaticism for the truth—and nothing but—is in tension with his devotion to the memory of his heroes. Reluctant to exploit their lives for fiction, he has exploited them instead for theory and a manifesto against “novelistic invention.” He has sacrificed a gripping and moving story, a real story, at the altar of accuracy. The frustrated reader is left with an unhappy medium: the skeleton of a familiar story, and a charming narrator who refuses to offer any insight into what it meant to be a resistor, a collaborator, an exile, or a Nazi. Kubiš, Gabcík, Lidice, Heydrich: we already knew what actually happened; Binet, as a novelist, should have told us how it felt.