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The Petscheks were among the wealthiest families in Czechoslovakia, and the mansion was lavish: long curving corridors, ornate bathrooms, a swimming pool in the basement. The Petscheks were also German-speaking Jews, wise enough to foresee the horrors that awaited them: they left Prague in When the Germans occupied the city in , Nazi officers, with their unerring instinct for such things, seized the huge home, and made baleful use of it until the end of the war.
As with many buildings in Europe, the Petschek villa is scored and crossed, like the hide of a whale, with the history of its accidents. In Prague, my friend showed me something I will not forget: he got me to lie on my back and peer at the underside of some piece of ambassadorial furniture. To what extent is the useful vitality of that detail inseparable from its historical reality?
If a novelist invented it, would it be somehow worth less—morally speaking, aesthetically speaking—than if a historian authenticated it? I take a special pleasure in recording its actuality, but I can imagine relishing it in a novel, feeling that the writer had created a new reality—while being aware, of course, that an invented reality is not identical with an actual reality.
First, it would abolish most fiction; second, Binet has written a historical novel of sorts, a book that, if not quite full of invented details, certainly uses invention. Binet has his cake and eats it, and gets to cry over the spilt crumbs, too. Heydrich is most infamous, though, as the man who convened the Wannsee Conference, on January 20, , in an elegantly sombre villa on the shore of Lake Wannsee.
It was at this meeting of high-ranking civil servants and senior officers that the Final Solution was proposed and formalized. Adolf Eichmann took the minutes, which apply a language of almost disinterested sterility to the project of industrialized mass murder. But Heydrich had already had the opportunity to do some killing and deportation of his own. These two men, and the Czech resisters who helped them, are the heroes of the book.
It is a gripping story, told very well. Reprisals were blind and absolute: the village of Lidice, near Prague, mistakenly thought by the Nazis to have some connection with the parachutists, was burned to the ground, and nearly every one of its inhabitants was shot or sent to a concentration camp. The assassins, along with five other resisters, were hidden in a Prague church.
When the Germans eventually discovered them, the seven men held out for hours, against nearly eight hundred S. Storm Troopers.
None were taken alive. Heydrich will be its principal architect. His father told him about Heydrich when he was a boy; he worked as a French teacher in a Slovakian military academy.
There are only two: the carrot and the stick. The stick comes next, although the dialectical balance between the two is uncertain. These authorial interruptions harden around a consistent theme: the narrator dislikes the conventional artifice of the novel.
We are supposed to note these contradictions—they are part of the knowing fabric of the book, part of its lively achievement, and part of its wise, or certainly clever, skepticism. But there are deeper, less obvious contradictions, of which perhaps Binet is not always the all-seeing postmodern master. But Binet does not seem aware that this trick of giving the impression that he is thinking the book through as he is writing it is one of the oldest tricks of novelistic verisimilitude: it is inseparable from the fraudulence of the first-person narrator, who is pretending to be speaking to the reader off the cuff even as the novel has been rewritten a thousand times by the laboring author.
Some of it is transparent and confessed, but most of it is hidden and unconfessed. Otherwise, reality is reduced to the level of fiction. I am not sure.
A freight train screeches to a halt. At the end of the tracks is a gate surmounted by a tower, with a brownstone wing on either side. Above, you hear the cawing of crows. The gate opens. You are now entering Auschwitz. At such moments, the reader starts developing a few scruples of his own, one of which is: a passage like this is neither good fiction nor meaningful historical writing.
It is second-rate sensation-mongering. If Binet is as doubt-filled about fiction, and as passionate about historical witness, as he says he is, the scrupulous response would be to refrain from writing fiction, or to do a kind of historical research that is not attempted here. An illuminating comparison is with a novel like W. The first convoy left for Riga on January 9, a thousand people, of whom would survive. The second convoy, a week later, also went to Riga: a thousand people, 16 survivors.
There is nothing unusual in this dreadful numerical progression toward percent. If Sebald has a greater literary intensity, it may be because he is more deeply, more yearningly pessimistic about the difficulty of historical retrieval. And it is a description not so much of Theresienstadt as of H.
And, surely, not you, and not we, but they: people whose appalling fates we can imagine but do not share. The distance seems as important as the proximity, and the inventing novelist may negotiate that doubleness more effectively than the passionate documentarian. A proper skepticism about the truthfulness of fiction has no need of becoming a despair about the possibility of fiction. Laurent Binet does indeed revitalize history—by fictionalizing it.
Whether you find it something more than that will depend on how you feel about the application of breezy charm and amusingly anguished authorial self-reflexiveness to a book about the Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich, who must be one of the most unfunny figures in recorded history. It's about his assassination, specifically, and the undersung Czech resistance heroes who carried it out; an angle that licenses a certain jauntiness in the tone. But Heydrich's icily demonic character necessarily dominates the book, and his pivotal roles in the key atrocities of the era, from Kristallnacht to the final solution itself, take up a substantial part of the narrative. He was Himmler's right-hand man, and the title refers to a piece of ponderous Nazi waggishness: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich — Himmler's brain is called Heydrich. So the question lingers: is the corpse-strewn story of Heydrich's ascent to head of the Gestapo and "Protector" of annexed Czechoslovakia where he earned his nickname, "the Butcher of Prague" in any significant way enriched by its author's playful anxieties about his girlfriend, musings on his dreams, or even by his more obviously pertinent struggles over whether to invent the dialogue or imagine the inner feelings of his real-life characters? The shifting nature of Binet's self-insertions, not to mention the very poised assurance of his writing, makes it a harder question to answer than you might expect. At their crudest they seem purely self-regarding: there to present him as an appealing type of slacker-scholar, glued to the History Channel, addicted to video-games, given to amiably flip outbursts of opinion, while also winningly obsessive over questions of micro-historical accuracy, and obsessed with his own obsessiveness.
HHhH by Laurent Binet: review
The novel was awarded the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. But it is also interlaced with the author's account of the process of researching and writing the book, his commentary about other literary and media treatments of the subject, and reflections about the extent to which the behavior of real people may of necessity be fictionalised in a historical novel. HHhH has been translated into more than twenty languages. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.