Lau­rent Binet; Sam Tay­lor, trans.

  • Review
By – April 18, 2012

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. 

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