Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Review of HHhH by Laurent Binet (Harvill Secker, 2012; French 2009)
HHhH is two stories wrapped through each other. On the one hand, it is the tale of Heydrich and the parachutists, and on the other it examines through self-reflection Binet’s obsession with the story and his attempt to write it as a non-fiction novel. Binet is uncomfortable with the non-fiction novel for the same reasons that I generally shun the genre - that the focus is real people and events and by fictionalising the story in whole or part the author plays with and re-writes history. HHhH confronts these issues head on by writing about the process of researching and writing about Heydrich’s assassination and his doubts and anxieties. The story thus unfolds through a series of short sections that see-saw between the two threads. At the start of the novel I was totally captivated by the approach and story. However, as the book progressed it became increasingly tedious and tiresome. The self-reflective elements lose their vitality and at one point Binet states: ‘I’m drivelling, aren’t I?’ To which my response was, 'yes, and you have been for quite some time'. It is not helped by the story of the parachutists being relatively mundane, lacking in spark and voice. Binet is so paranoid about keeping the story ‘true’ that the narrative style reads more like popular history than fiction. Whilst the book will appeal to literary folk and historians interested in the production of knowledge and the role of the author, as a novel it started with much promise but the format ultimately stymied the story.