This novel (?) from Laurent Binet is going to be a book that brings on contrasting opinion and this is mainly due to the writing style of Mr Binet. Translated brilliantly from the native French by Sam Taylor, the book tells the true story of an assassination attempt on the life of Reinhard Heydrich AKA the Blond Beast or The Hangman of Prague. Heydrich is Himmler’s right-hand man during the Second World War and is responsible for the final solution. The plot follows the build up to the assassination attempt, the rise to power of the Nazi party and the training of a Czech and Slovak tasked with the mission.
When I initially approached this book it was with excitement as a fan of World War fiction and an interest in the holocaust. The story contained within the pages was to be right up my street, but the writing style was a turn off for me. Binet’s book reads like a manuscript; it is full of personal notes, details about his life and how he feels when he approaches particular sections of the story. To tell this tale of bravery is his dream and he has spent much of his life obsessing over the intricacies and research.
For me, I would have preferred he just tell the story rather than drop in notes about his girlfriends and his worries over whether to fictionalise the gaps in his story that documentation can’t fill in. There’s no real gain from his interjections and I can’t see why an extensive ‘Author’s notes’ section couldn’t be added to the end. It’s not that I’m not interested in his personal story but it broke all the tension built by his narrative.
The story of Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš is utterly gripping and tells of humanity’s bravery in the face of adversity. Operation Anthropoid was, for all intents and purposes, a suicide mission. The governments sending these men into the fray could not help once their mission begun, Gabčík and Kubiš were without official support. Thankfully they have the Czech resistance on side and a wonderful side cast of people step in to help hide and bolster the team of two.
You can clearly see why Binet wanted to tell this story. It’s the classic tale of bravery and each chapter (of which there are many – though short) where Gabčík and Kubiš appear gets the adrenaline building. The same can be said for the background of Hitler’s uprising and how Heydrich fit himself into the Fuhrer’s master plans. The sheer evilness and cunning that is on display builds the anger within the reader and reflects the anguish that the Jewish population of Europe is going through in the story.
Despite having studied the Second World War and read numerous books in both fiction and non, whenever I read about the Holocaust I’m filled with a fresh melancholy and anger that such an act can have occurred within human history. Binet capitalises on this natural reaction and writes the more graphic sections with a brutal honesty that is both welcome and feared. There’s no doubting that this man has a talent for retelling such a story.
Binet mentions that “when you are writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up” and it is here that the book becomes a little more awkward. Binet often pauses and creates chapters in which to inform the reader of his anguish at not knowing what occurred behind closed doors or in secret conversations and while his transparency is refreshing it became intrusive for me. It also seemed to show a lack of confidence in himself which was then planted inside me, leading to doubts at his abilities.
Most of these dislikes occurred during the opening half of the book as Binet sets up his story. Once the second half begins, however, the story takes off and never looks back. Binet’s commentary becomes more philosophical and his story holds a tension that only a true story can bring. The two longest chapters in the book are breathtaking in their implementation, prose and content as they tell the two most important aspects of Gabčík and Kubiš’ story.
HHhH is a very conflicting book, as while I adored many aspects of the work, there were times of frustration and a little boredom. When I first rated this book on Goodreads I gave it three stars but as time has worn on and I have reflected on the book, that grew into the four stars you see below. This is mainly because that Laurent Binet has written a book that tells a brutal story of courage, death and above all, life. HHhH is moving, terrifying and gripping in equal measure, it’s a must for fans of the “genre” even if the story is told in a rather staccato fashion.
Published by Harvill Secker. This book was kindly sent from the publisher.