Laurent Binet: HHhH

May 8, 2013

41E5-NIvklL._AA160_I’m really not sure what to make of this novel – or indeed if I even class it as a novel, in spite of what it says on the cover. I’m not sure whether it deserves the award it was given, or just the ramblings of someone who is very up himself. And it was a good read…

Where to start?

It’s about the assassination of Heydrich, by the Czech resistance, in 1942, the background and the consequences. So, at some level it’s historical. And the author repeatedly underlines his research for factual accuracy. It’s very detailed: you would say the couleur locale is very well executed. But it’s also about the author’s fascination with the personality of Heydrich, the events and the personalities, and his own life and decisions keep intruding. This slows down the pace, introduces some reflectiveness, and also develops some suspense and tension. But I kept on thinking, do I want to know about his love life and relationships with Czech women – why is he inserting all this extraneous matter? At that level it becomes as much a book about him, his quest and his fascination. Fair enough, but it was also frequently irritating.

How to deal in a new way with old material that has been used and re-used many times already? Well, I suppose this is one of them, and he did keep me reading. But there was constantly this ‘look at me, I’m doing something so new and wonderful’, along with the putting down of others who’d tackled the same or similar material. To dismiss a novel like Littell’s Les Bienveillantes in a line was witty but gratuitous.

Then I thought, well, okay, I’m of a generation that knows quite a lot about the Second World War and Nazism, and there are other people who don’t, younger generations who need to be informed, and this is a way of communicating the insanity and horrors of the time with them. It’s a history book without being a history textbook, as it were.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, and it kept me engaged. But I’m not sure whether it would bear a second reading, without seeming unbearably precious. Ask me in ten years.

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