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.
© Peter Rozovsky 2013