336 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review by Marc Nash
Laurent Binet may just have invented a new genre: meta-historical fiction. Or as he says, he is writing an "infranovel", a below the novel as it were, with nuggets about how he the author comes by his source material and his doubts about the whole process of historical representation. He is the historian fretting about missing pieces in his evidence. The novelist concerned with writing about real life people and events and misrepresenting them in the name of fiction. What he does do I believe, is lance the conceit once and for all that there really is or could be a genre called historical fiction. Rather there is merely fiction set in the past, which let's face it, is all fiction. Since even if a novel starts out as contemporaneous to the author, it soon isn't.
The real life history at the heart of this novel is the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich "The Blond Beast", "The Butcher Of Prague", by two members of the Czechoslovak resistance parachuted in from London. Maybe fortunately for me, I was familiar with this episode in history. Let the games begin then...
I said this was meta-fiction, less for references to how Binet comes by his material and continually runs it by his girlfriend, more because as the novel crescendos, he is there willing the assassins Gabcik and Kubis on, standing side by side with them, unapologetically hoping some of their heroism and moral rightness will rub off on him. He has entered their minds, but morally rather than historically, since he admits he doesn't know at any moment whether they were smoking a cigarette, or whether they swapped a kiss with their sweethearts. Any novel is or ought to be all about the psychology and emotion of its characters. History is anything but. Academic historians warn us against psychoanalysing historical figures as 'bad history'. That Stalin and Hitler were both 'nutcases' doesn't really join all the dots behind the consequences of those two tyrannical regimes upon huge swathes of the global population. And that is before allowing for all the gaps the historical evidence leaves behind. We may have letters and documents, but fortunately in most cases we don't have the case notes of shrinks.
HHhH is also meta since Binet can't help express his exhilaration and trepidation on acquiring new source material. The exhilaration is axiomatic; the trepidation is that some new book or other will obviate the need for his own magnum opus. Which of course no book could ever do, simply because of his framing device of self-insertion. The book has no page numbers, only 257 bite-sized chapters as another nugget of the jigsaw may or may not be popped into place. Talking about a stray dog adopted by one of the conspirators, "The dog probably won't have a decisive role to play in Operation Anthopoid, but I would rather jot down a useless detail than risk missing a crucial one".
Yet Binet's bite sized chunks don't differentiate between the significance, or even the validity of any of their juicy morsels. Occasionally Binet doubts the verisimilitude of something he happens upon, or his own way of expressing something as fact, but the reader is utterly left alone to make up their own mind. Is this history? Is this fiction? Beats the hell out of me and I studied the former to degree level and now practise the latter as my profession. As the author says, "I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see growing all over it- ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy - the unmappable pattern of causality". There are too many characters involved, many of which he apologizes for not having the wherewithal to turn into 'characters' to allow the reader to remember their names. And even where the central actors are in the spotlight, the records remain too incomplete to flesh them out properly. Binet's achievement is to represent the 'unmappable' as just that and yet to suggest a thread through the labyrinth for the reader to follow and access some coherency.
And so I apply my riddle to sift through each chapter Binet presents me with. Encouraged by the author to take the details with a pillar of salt along the entirety. And yet still a striking portrait of the Nazi regime emerges. Their cruelty and insanity. Their weak spots- the immediate manhunt after the assassination attempt suggests how incompetent and frankly cowardly the SS were. The pre-war history of the region is lightly but effectively sketched in. And finally there is Heydrich himself. For all the author's disclaimers, this is a highly credible portrait of the man responsible for putting Hitler's urgent but vague pronouncements of genocides into practice. Heydrich was the bloodless bureaucrat without rival in conceiving practical solutions to expedite inhuman policies, but then also the man who delighted in making tours of his handiwork, unlike his immediate superior Himmler who was turned queasy by the result of his directives. By the end of the novel, you the reader have little option but to share Binet's cheerleading for the two assassins. And such a flagrant lack of neutrality means this could never be history, but only a novel. A passionate and emotional one at that.