“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.…