Friday, November 08, 2013

Why you should read HHhH

In today's busy world, in these straitened times, it's more important than ever to maximize the return on your reading dollar, to choose books that can do more than one thing for you. And that's why you should read HHhH.

Laurent Binet's 2010 novel is a thriller; a history lesson; a lesson on the importance of history (which is not the same thing); and a meditation on how we read, write, and experience fiction and history; and it has, as almost any serious book will, good jokes.

HHhH stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, German for Himmler's brain is called Heydrich, and the novel has as one of its centers a Czech and a Slovak soldiers' real-life assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi official who will become known, as we are told in the opening chapters, as the Butcher of Prague. Another center is the narrator's research on the book he is writing about the assassination plot. Shot through are compelling bits of Central European history that, believe, you want to know.

The book's cover copy gives just part of the story, recounting briefly the assassins' plot, but lapsing into sketchy adjectives for the rest: thrilling. Intellectually engrossing, and, more telling, "a profound meditation on the debt we owe to history."

But you know what? I don't blame the copywriters. HHhH is a difficult novel to describe without making it sound like a piece of self-contemplating postmodern whimsy or a plodding piece of must-read. But it is anything but. Far from looking inward, it look out into the world and its history far more than most fiction does. Its "voice" is low-key, engaging, and, where called for, self-deprecating. And, while the novel treats its subject with due seriousness (Heydrich may have been the worst human being who ever lived), it gains in seriousness by eschewing solemnity.  And now I'm going to shut up and resume my reading.

The book is beautifully translated from the French by Sam Taylor, one of whose most felicitous phrases occurs, in a bit of irony, no doubt unintended, on Page 88.
*
(Hear the Europa Philharmonic Orchestra perform Memorial to Lidice, written by the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů in 1943 to commemorate the village wiped out by the Germans in revenge for Heydrich's killing.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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16 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

You and Adrian convince me that I must get to this one.

November 08, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's quite a book. I want to read it slowly because I will probably be sorry when I finish it. The novel works, as I am not embarrassed to say, on many levels. I could well imagine making posts about HHhH and history, for example, before posting about Binet's technique.

November 08, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and then a post about what the novel has to say to crime writers.

November 08, 2013  
Blogger nonie said...

I brought it back with me when it was first out in France. Haven't yet read it but it is in my towering TBR pile.

November 08, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did you buy it in its original French version. The title HHhH would translate well into just about any language that uses the roman alphabet. If French is your first language, it would be interesting to learn your opinion of the English translation after you've read the original, since I had good things to say about the English version.

November 08, 2013  
Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

It may be a difficult novel to describe, but you've done a bang-up job. I know I'll keep an eye out for it.

November 09, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. It's a wonderful book to read, a difficult one to describe. One gets the feeling Binet is using all kinds of post-modern tricks without ever losing sight of the story he has to tell. Maybe that makes him post-post-modern,

November 09, 2013  
Blogger nonie said...

I did buy it in French. I will come back and post what I think about it and the translation when I get to read it. Have you read The Kindly Ones? (Les Bienveillants) my husband was fascinated by it. I can't say enjoyed it due to the subject matter. It can be a tough read.

November 09, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know the book, but I can see it raised some hackles. And now, on to read a newspaper article about the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

I thought Sam Taylor did a find job rendering Binet's novel into colloquial English, with a fine ear for slightly over-the-top prose when called for. I can read French, but not well enough to judge from the original how accurate Taylor's translation is. It sure reads well, though.

November 09, 2013  
Blogger James Chester said...

This was one of my top ten favorites last year, probably, certainly one of my favorites in the last ten years.

Loved it. It's been difficult to read any piece of historical fiction without thinking about HhHH since.

November 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nonie, I finished reading HHhH last night. Binet offers some thoughts about The Kindly Ones toward the end of the novel that will drive your blood pressure up.

November 10, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James, HHhH is certainly one of the best and most compelling novels I've read in recent years. I expect that it will haunt my reading not just of historical fiction but of history. Binet has that way of interrogating what he his doing as he is doing it but without discounting the substance of his subject, and he does it all while working in some very funny jokes. What a book!

November 10, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Your posting and the comments by others almost persuade me that I need to seek out and read HHhH. However, your comments about historical fiction and postmodern tricks make a bit wary because I have grown weary of those kinds of books. In any case, I am off to my online bookstore.

November 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I sympathize with your apprehension. I, too, am skeptical of those kinds of books. But what makes HHhH so good is that Binet never loses sight of his subject--the plot against Heydrich--and the people involved. I could (and, perhaps, will) put up a post that highlights the book's good, old-fashioned good lines.

But the best evidence that the novel is more than post-modern gimmickry is that after reading it, my first thought was not to look for more by Binet, but rather to visit Prague.

November 11, 2013  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

I read this recently and posted about it over on me auld blog. http://kevinmccarthyauthor.blogspot.ie/2013/09/hhhhell-yeah.html HhHH is a MUST read for any writer of historical (or fact-based crime) fiction. It genuinely made me question how I write about history as a fiction writer. It challenges notions of striving for authenticity over veracity and asks questions that most writers prefer to ignore--myself included--such as is it valid to put words into the mouths of actual, real, once living human beings. (That sounds horrible but it is somewhat, if I recall, how it is put in the book.)

I didn't think it is as witty as it was made out to be, which is perhaps a feature of the translation, but it is profound, and if you don't know the story--even if you do, actually--it is (cringe, but true) unputdownable.

November 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin, here's your HHhH piece in handy, one-click form. You highlighted one remark of Binet's on an issue I've raised elsewhere. I may turn it into a new blog post. So thanks.

Yes, I can well imagine that Binet's book would make almost any kind of writer question what he or she does. I had not seen it lauded as a font of wit, but I quite enjoyed some of the wit that made it into the English version. And I quite enjoyed the translation.

November 12, 2013  

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