This will be less a review of Laurent Binet’s HHhH than some musings on what Binet is trying to say about writing historical fiction, many of which have been inspired by the recent Twitter discussion organised by the #storypast reading group, which has been collected into a Storify. (I felt this book had much less to say on writing history, so I say little about that in this post.) HHhH deals with Operation Anthropoid, the codename for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Slovak Jozef Gabčík and the Czech Jan Kubiš in 1942. I’m not an historian of the Third Reich (indeed, my only formal encounter with this period of German history throughout my entire educational career was at GCSE, when we studied ‘Hitler’s Rise to Power’ but stopped abruptly in 1939, leaving the entirety of the war a blank) so this post will absolutely not be devoted to assessing whether HHhH is ‘accurate’ or not. Indeed, it will be much more concerned with a question that Binet himself seems to think is more interesting; what do we mean by ‘accuracy’, in history or in fiction, and why do we value it?
The first thing to get your head around in HHhH is that Binet-in-the-book and Binet-the-author are two distinct people. Of course, without this distinction we’d struggle to read HHhH as anything approaching a novel (I’m not sure this is the most fruitful way to read it anyway). Book Binet begins his narrative obsessed with historical accuracy, and likes to tell us how much better he’s doing than other writers who have tackled this topic. He’s not happy with much of Alan Burgess’s Seven Men at Daybreak, which he thinks is ‘fanciful’ because it’s too fictionalised: ‘It’s a shame that Burgess wasted his time with cliches like this, because his book is undoubtedly well-researched. I found two glaring errors – concerning Heydrich’s wife, whom he called Inga rather than Lina, and the colour of his Mercedes, which he insists is dark green rather than black.’ Later, he has to retreat a little when the dark green Mercedes turns up in another novel; ‘But this Mercedes – it was black, I’m sure… But I really see it black, that Mercedes! Maybe my imagination is playing games with me?’ This is important because there is one sentence that Book Binet tells us at the start that he is aching to write: ‘The black Mercedes slid along the road like a snake.’ The colour of the car has already become so integral to Book Binet’s imagined re-creation of Heydrich’s assassination that he is tempted to violate his own rules.
Breaking rules is something that Book Binet does a lot. He sets out very clear views on dialogue early in HHhH. ‘There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue – reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history… There are only three ways you can faithfully reconstruct a dialogue: from an audio recording, from a video recording, or from shorthand notes… If my dialogues can’t be based on precise, faithful, word-perfect sources, they will be invented… And just so there’s no confusion, all the dialogues I invent (there won’t be many) will be written like scenes from a play.’ However fervently irritating Book Binet seems in his dismissal of historical invention, this isn’t a rule that he even tries to keep to (he admits to having ‘practically made up’ the first meeting between Gabčík and Kubiš, for example). He breaks other rules, too. When Himmler hears that Heydrich’s Messerschmitt 109 has been shot down in 1941, Book Binet writes ‘The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull.’ Natacha, Book Binet’s girlfriend, objects: ‘You’re making it up!’ Book Binet finds it hard to disagree: ‘I have been boring her for years with my theories about the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention, and she’s right.’ But he can’t bring himself to remove the sentence.
‘Puerile and ridiculous’ is a fair summary of Book Binet’s attack on Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (interestingly, this was redacted in the first edition, and, judging from the extract given on the page linked above, partially redacted in my edition as well). ‘The problem with this type of historical novel is that it shamelessly mixes the true with the plausible’ , Book Binet complains. ‘This is what I think: inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence.’ But Book Binet, of ‘The blood rises to his cheeks…’ fame, can’t help being a little jealous of Littell’s literary skill. ‘All I will say is that there’s a description of Heydrich at the beginning of the book, from which I will quote only one line: “His hands seemed too long, like nervous algae attached to his arms.” I don’t know why, but I really like that image.’ Book Binet gets what historical novels do, why they have value, and firmly rejects the lot of it; but he feels the attraction of the craft, all the same.
My initial judgment of HHhH was that it had little new to say about historical fiction, despite being an engrossing and beautifully-written work of popular history (kudos to the translator, Sam Taylor, who has done a fantastic job). I now feel that this was a little harsh. In creating Book Binet, Binet offers a vehicle for us to engage with some common objections to historical fiction; and in so subtly depicting Book Binet’s seduction by the very novelistic devices he so scorned at the beginning of his journey, he underlines what fiction has to offer us. (‘My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where those holes should occur.’) If we want to know which side of the argument Book Binet eventually comes down on – well, we need only check out the colour of the Mercedes in his final rendering of Heydrich’s assassination. Heydrich starts off in a ‘black (or dark green) Mercedes’. After that, its colour is not mentioned for several chapters. But in the end, Book Binet cannot resist: ‘I had to start up the black Mercedes.’ Book Binet is not trying to write historical fiction out of existence; he is the proof of its power.