HHhH: A Novel by Laurent Binet


Bill Keeth with a Prix Goncourt winner to be read at one sitting

“A highly original piece of work, at once charming, moving, and gripping,” says Martin Amis, Manchester University’s erstwhile literary carpetbagger, about this most unusual book title.Through gritted teeth, presumably. Because, though umpteen reviews of the book are available to be read on the internet, not a word by Amis is listed amongst them.

But certainly Laurent Binet’s debut novel is truly original in that it is a particularly distinctive example of meta-fiction.

That is to say, the author relates the true story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, by two Czech nationals who were trained at Manchester Ringway in part before being parachuted into their native Czechoslovakia before New Year, 1942. Meanwhile, the author introduces his present-day self into the story so as to give voice to his multitudinous artistic misgivings with regard to exactly how (that is to say, how truthfully) he should present this most exciting, yet harrowing of tales. For instance, was the car in which Heydrich is travelling when confronted by his assassins black or green in colour? And ought the author to state a preference, no evidence being ready to hand?

For five months our parachutists are looked after by members of the Czech resistance as they plan their well nigh impossible mission. Because Heydrich is Heinrich Himmler’s No. 2, of whom it is said (an SS in-joke, apparently) that Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (“Himmler’s brain is called Heidrich”). HHhH, in short – hence the title of the book, which was suggested by Laurent Binet’s publisher, as opposed to the more mundane Operation Anthropoid.

Readers should not imagine that the aptly-named Butcher of Prague, (“Hitler’s Hangman”, as Thomas Man referred to him) deserves anything other than a death sentence. Had he lived, Heydrich would not have survived Nuremburg. Because he, it was, who orchestrated the Night of the Long Knives . . . who organised Kristalnacht . . . who arranged for executed German jailbait dressed in Polish army uniforms to be planted within a radio station on German soil, thereby starting WWII . . . who chaired the infamous Wannsee Conference at which the so-called Final Solution was brought into being.

Our two parachutists (serving Warrant Officers with the Czech military contingent in the UK) were, therefore, the bravest of the brave. Not that this meant their mission was effected with anything amounting to aplomb.

They are, quite naturally, nervous as hell, awaiting their chance, as characteristically arrogant Heydrich travels to work in an open-top saloon car, accompanied by his driver alone. As the car slows to take a right-hand bend Jozef Gabcik steps into the road, takes aim with a Sten gun that jamsfails to fire

Heydrich leaps to his feet, barking an order for the driver to stop, at which point Jan Kubis lobs a bomb that falls short of landing in the car but, hitting the right-hand vehicle exterior, blows asunder the passenger door, the seat squab and rear bumper, too. Whereupon shrapnel from all three infiltrate Heydrich’s internal organs, his spleen in particular.

Notwithstanding which, Heydrich jumps out the car and gives chase; so, too, does his driver until Heydrich collapses in the road and has to be rushed to hospital in a van belonging to the Bata shoe shop.

Despite the ministrations of the best doctors available, Heydrich develops terminal septicaemia which tortures him cruelly and relentlessly for every second of every minute of every hour of the concluding twelve days of his evil life.

Meanwhile, why, I wonder, did Jozef Gabcik not check his sten gun before attempting to fire it when, personally, I would not dream of attending a quiz night armed with an untested Bic biro!

Enough frivolity! Because Hitler demands 10,000 Czechs be killed by way of recompense. Luckily, Heyridch’s deputy, needing a slave workforce for the morrow, suggests a lesser figure. So martial law is imposed, the village of Lidice is razed to the ground for no good reason, its menfolk murdered, its women imprisoned, its children sent north for Germanisation.

Jan Kubis, Jozef Gabcik, can do no more than secrete themselves together with five colleagues in the crypt of the Cathedral of SS Cyril and Commodius where (betrayed by a countryman) they hold 800 Germans at bay until succumbing to superior numbers, but not to capture. He who did not die from his wounds, saved his final bullet for personal use.

As many as 1,585 Czech men, women and children are killed by the Germans in retribution.

Check out Wikipedia, please do. Try YouTube, too, for an epic feature about Operation Anthropoid and an interview with Laurent Binet. Best of all log on to the official Czech document of 95 pages: www.army.cz/images/id_7001_8000/7419/assassination-en.pdf

Alongside documentation such as this, fresh-faced, hirsute, garrulous, laddishly personable, leather-jacketed Laurent Binet’s whingeing literary concerns don’t amount to a hill of beans. Nope, Laurent’s just the sort of no account 21st Century kind of guy we need to sell books, aftershave, sun cream or Smirnoff to us.

Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website, http://www.novelnovella.com.

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