HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH This is a non-fiction novel in part about how you find the words to bring to life the 1942 assassination in Prague of SS chief Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Final Solution in which the Jews of Europe were to be exterminated. The author agonises as dialogue is invented and gaps are filled in with supposition. In fact, Laurent Binet at times protests too much but HHhH (the letters come from a tedious Nazi joke about Heydrich’s relationship with his boss Himmler) is an extraordinary piece of writing. The book has some affinity with Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, both in terms of general subject matter – Nazis, the Holocaust – and in the search for a suitable means of telling a story. But a better fit is perhaps with Gordon Burn’s Best And Edwards, a book centred on the 1958 Munich air crash which killed many of Manchester United’s players and in which the author takes a key role as he recreates the lives of his subjects. Or maybe even Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards, in which the author becomes part of a homeless man’s existence even while attempting to unpick and explain it. Anyway, the heroism of HHhH is casually shattering. The final battle, in which 800 SS troops surround seven resistance fighters, is remarkable – not least for the fact that it lasted eight hours, and that it actually happened. No less extraordinary is that the plot against ‘the blond beast’ Heydrich stood and fell on the bravery of ordinary families who risked – and lost – their lives to help. One more thing: however much you read around the Holocaust, the sheer unbridled, bureaucratic depravity of it retains the power to astonish. Primo Levi’s biographer describes a Jewish engineer, separated from his wife and daughters on entering Auschwitz, repeatedly asking after them, unaware that they were killed immediately. Ian Thomson writes: ‘He was no longer a family man.’ While not quite achieving the chilling majesty of that sentence, Binet makes a simple observation about the ribbing Heydrich received from classmates while at school: ‘At this point in his life, it is still possible to mock him without risking death.’ That didn’t last for long.

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