I sought out with immense eagerness the English translation of Laurent Binet’s Prix-Goncourt-winning novel, HHhH. This book concerns Operation Anthropoid, the plot to assassinate the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. I had a personal interest in the novel: I am currently writing a novel in which Heydrich plays a major role, though it’s not quite, er, the same beast (hint: werewolves!). This huge distance beween our projects was a good thing. I could feel interest and kinship without professional competition. Though I do wonder if I’d have felt that sting if Binet had been an English-language novelist: Given that the discussion below is negative, I may be manifesting a subconscious sense of territoriality; so Monsieur Binet, if you are reading this, congratulations on your success, and feel free to dismiss me as a jealous unknown.
As far as my conscious mind goes, the only one I can vouch for, really, my conscious mind was thinking: “Here’s a writer with an identical obsession! Another guy who can’t stop reading about Heydrich and Anthropoid! Are there others out there? Are we a secret society? If we aren’t, should we form one? I can’t wait to see how he put the history to dramatic use!”
Helas! It turned out that he—didn’t.
HHhH is intercut with sections detailing his endless anxieties about the subtle falsifications of history in the historical fiction genre and about poetic license generally. I have done so much of the same research, and read so many of the same books, that I realized very quickly that the storytelling portions of the book are actually just capsule summaries made in colloquial present tense. The tone and tense shift is the main change he’s made to “novelize” things. Every so often, Binet will write out some movie-like scene of sinister Nazis or brave Resistance fighters, then in the next section start some hand-wringing or eye-rolling about how he made this or that detail up, or can’t verify the color of the car or something. I suspect he didn’t have the stamina or self-confidence to present the entire story this way; so he stages a few scenes and (for pages and pages) summarizes the rest. He professes a hatred of invented dialogue in historical fiction, but one starts to suspect it’s because he can’t quite swing it himself. There’s little in the storytelling part of the book that improves on or effectively dramatizes the accounts of historians; much of his “story” consists of (a very meticulous) collation of sources. He is lucky the story’s climax, as told by his historians and memoirists, is as interesting and well-documented as it is—this is where his summary takes on real momentum. Binet didn’t have the benefit of Robert Hewarth’s 2011 Heydrich biography; Hewarth is actually better on some parts, like Himmler’s recruitment of Heydrich. One reason is that Hewarth isn’t so rushed.
For me, the main sign of the poverty of Binet’s resources as a novelist is his failure to develop Gabcik and Kubis as characters. These were two very different men, personality-wise. Binet, characteristically, tells us what the British dossier about each man contained; he describes them with a few adjectives, the way all the historians do when talking about their different personalities; and sure enough, you can barely tell them apart, just as you can’t when you’re reading a history on the same subject, because his novel’s strengths are the strengths of his nonfiction sources, and his weaknesses their weaknesses. This is manifestly not as it should be. Novelistically, there is very little value added here.
The main distinguishing feature of this book is its grand Prufrockian dilemma. Shall I invent a character? Shall I put words in people’s mouths? Shall I imagine a scene? These are the reservations of historiography, not the reservations of fiction-writing. These two practices exist on a spectrum, but at their best they exist at different ends of that spectrum. The whole point of historical fiction is ventriloquy, stagecraft, and pure verbal Bluff in the service of truth: To draw the reader into your conjured world, to hold them spellbound, to make them believe what they are witnessing moment to moment is real. Not trust; not veracity; not scholarly reliability: The creative reanimation of the past.
When I say Binet’s novel is a capsule summary spliced with an essay-memoir, with a few staged scenes provided sometimes as mere exhibits, it’s probably because I’ve read too many of the same books and documents. To a reader coming to it raw, many parts of the summary are probably quite gripping, especially toward the end. But gripping the way a good nonfiction account is gripping.
To understand what I’m talking about when I assert the autonomy of fiction in contradistinction from history-writing (which Binet does not have the courage or insight to do), go out and read his work against Hilary Mantel’s. Now there is a writer with the moxie necessary for the Bluff, the Bluff that is the singular glory—and obligation—of the novel. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happened. Don’t take my word for it, or, for that matter, the historian’s. Just sit back and watch….