This novel’s mysterious title stands for the German words “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” Attributed to Heinrich Himmler’s own officers, the disturbing phrase not only hints at the terrifying power and influence of Reinhard Heydrich, the infamous SS General and architect of the Final Solution. It also emphasizes Heydrich’s centrality to the book.
But the first-person, twenty-first-century narrator is at least equally interested in two other true historical figures. These men are Josef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, members of the Czech army-in-exile in London who parachuted back into their homeland as part of Operation Anthropoid: a mission to assassinate Heydrich.
The narrator wants to reconstruct their story, and he is determined to do so in novel form. HHhH is therefore as much metafiction as historical fiction, returning frequently to the subject of fiction writing. Early on, for instance, the narrator reflects on his research: “The vastness of the information I amass ends up frightening me. I write two pages for every thousand I read. At this rate, I will die without even having mentioned the preparations for the attack.”
Thus, the book will capture readers’ attention not only for what it imparts about the history of World War II, the Holocaust, and Operation Anthropoid. It will resonate also among all who may concur with the narrator when he opines that often, “fiction wins out over history,” and who wonder about the art and craft behind those triumphs.
HHhH has already won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, perhaps the highest honor for a debut novel in the author’s native France. It is difficult to predict if the book will fare as well in the United States. But this reader sure hopes that it does.
Laurent Binet talks about HHhH
Erika Dreifus’s latest book, Birthright: Poems, was published by Kelsay Books in November 2019. Her short-story collection Quiet Americans was named an American Library Association/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. An Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Baruch College of The City University of New York, Erika is deeply engaged with and conversant in contemporary literature, publishing, and Jewish writing. She is also the editor and publisher of The Practicing Writer, a free (and popular) e‑newsletter that features opportunities and resources for fictionists, poets, and writers of creative nonfiction.