The Binary-Breaking HHhH

Weston Cutter
May 22, 2012
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            I guess part of me is mildly surprised that the release of Laurent Binet’s HHhH (translated by Sam Taylor) hasn’t triggered more chatter about it and the whole blown-up-over-nothing Lifespan of a Fact tempest that struck earlier this year. Frustratingly (I think exclusively for and to me), HHhH is being categorized as fiction, which means the interesting discussion about it, and about historical accuracy, and about the function of valences of truth regarding how stories are told—all those things will be left for another time, another day, another book. Which, of course, is ultimately fine: Binet’s book is phenomenal and worth talking about all on its own, exclusively for what it does, but it would’ve been cool to be able to splash it into a larger conversation (or, at least, it was, as I read it, splashing into a larger conversation).

HHhH is an historical novel regarding Richard Heydrich, among the nastiest Nazis ever (I wasn’t aware of it either); he was the Butcher of Prague, he was the Blond Beast. He was eventually in charge of the S.D. (intel for the S.S.), was instrumental in organizing Kristallnacht, and was, according to Hitler, the “man with the iron heart.” (HHhH because of the phrase that translated to Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich, just fyi.) The man was a monster, and Binet’s novel of his assassination—at the hands of two parachutists (Jan Kubis, Czech, and Jozef Gabcik, Slovakian)—is half the fun it is for the emotional work and jaggy excess Binet puts himself through regarding the historical event and how to properly, adequately honor it. HHhH is made of 257 individual chapters, some of them dealing with the historical events, some of them post-modern vignettes dealing with the narrator’s struggles with his own attempt to square the historical events in fiction, some of them commentaries on the historical events and the liberties the narrator has or has not taken, and the significance of liberties taken. I understand that this all gets involved and messy. Be appraised that the messiness is, I think, exactly Laurent’s point (at least among his points, since the principal ones are, conclusively, regarding Heydrich’s awfulness, Kubis’s and Gabcik’s heroism, and Prague’s perfection).

Something critical to know as you even begin to consider HHhH: Binet is French, and was given the story of Heydrich’s assassination (if we’re to believe that the novel’s narrator is, as Binet’s said elsewhere, basically him) as a kid. Meaning simply: this is not some rah-rah nationalistic thing: Binet is (through his narrator) attempting to appropriate a story that is not, ultimately, his own. There’s nothing bad about this, of course: what’s crucial about this fact, I’d argue, is that HHhH is a book that’s not merely a (seemingly incredibly lightly) fictionalized account of a significant historical event, but is also a book in which Binet’s attempting, through the book itself, to work through issues of, first, historical fidelity, and second, something like historical ownership, or approximation.

James Wood’s piece in last week’s New Yorker is, I’d argue, a bit off: Wood argues Binet’s post-modern trickery (allowing the reader to see the narrator/author’s doubts about how best to offer history, and what the present owes the past, and etc. etc. etc.) is not fully understood by the author, by the narrator, and his evidence for this is the fact Binet engages in certain fun meta-textual stuff, offering the reader, for instance, an aside about how the author could supply more information about historical details if he’d purchased a book which is too expensive, but then, a few pages later, admits he did, in fact, purchase the book. Meaning: at one level, Binet’s offering bluffs and writerly sidebars which serve to enmesh the reader in what, yes, can seem something like a pomo game. But the reason HHhH is so riveting and, I’d claim, a larger success than Wood will give it credit for being (though he does give plenty of credit—the review’s not glowing but is ultimately largely positive) is that the book is ultimately blasting through the binary of historical accuracy vs inaccuracy. Wood paints this, anyway, as a binary: at one end is fictionalized history, at the other end is the closest one can come at 100% accurate historical mimesis.

But it’s clear Binet’s trying to do away entirely with this binary. This is why Wood’s review is mildly frustrating. Here’s Binet, p. 228: Prague in 1942 looks like a black-and-white photo. The passing men wear crumpled hats and dark suits, while the women wear those fitted skirts that make them all look like secretaries. I know this—I have the photos on my desk. All right, no, I admit it. I was exaggerating a bit. They don’t all look like secretaries. Some look like nurses…The trams that come and go to the sound of little bells resemble old red-and-white train carriages. (but how can I know that, when the photos are in black and white? I just know, okay!)

Here’s Binet, p. 179, emphasis mine:

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell this story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect—and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history.

There’s counter evidence—plenty—that Binet is ultimately trying to antagonize fiction itself (p. 106: “If I do [invent/visualize a meeting], it will be the clinching proof that fiction does not respect anything.”), but Wood is short-changing HHhH and Binet’s accomplishment by attempting to slot it either into the either/or binary of accurate historical fiction or postmodernly self-aware play. Look again: I keep banging my head against the wall of history. You should know that Heydrich dies, though not as his assassins had planned (there’s a jammed gun). You should know that the heroes do not survive. You should know that Binet’s wildly in love with Prague in the way only someone not from a place can be—he loves it as a spouse, he’s ensorceled. You should know that the book ends with a theoretical scene, with Binet’s narrator explaining what he’d like to be able to write—meaning, at book’s close, Binet’s still banging his head against history’s wall, wrestling with the desire to make the book/scene that’d satisfy him while also wrestling with the fact that history doesn’t much budge. I’d argue the book carries such charge (and what charge, good lord: wait till year-end lists) because Binet’s ultimately offering a new literary experience, one in which a 21st century author, armed to the teeth with awareness and a bevy of older forms, tries to tackle the past honestly, bringing every possible tool to bear. The book is not an answer, is not Binet saying how we should approach history, how we should transmit old stories: it’s his idiosyncratic try, exuberant and breathless and wonderful throughout.

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