Literary critics will tell you that even nonfiction can be considered a kind of fiction. The author chooses what the share and what to hide. They create a story arc to engage their readers. Laurent Binet’s HHhH* isn’t unusual, considered in that light. Still, any reader of historical nonfiction would be surprised by the extent that Binet embeds himself in the story of Operation Anthropoid and how he agonizes over what to include and exclude.
On May 27, 1942, three men planned to kill the Nazi “protector” of Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich. Jozef Valčik served as the lookout. Jozef Gabčik was supposed to kill him with a Sten gun, but it jammed. Jan Kubiš lobbed a bomb at Heydrich’s Mercedes, but didn’t kill his target outright. Heydrich later died of septicemia from his shrapnel wounds. Anthropoid succeeded, but only by accident. The Nazi reprisals that followed took the lives of thousands of Czech citizens. The entire village of Lidice was razed and its inhabitants murdered simply because a letter was discovered during the chaotic investigation that followed. The letter had nothing to do with Anthropoid.
This is the nutshell synopsis of Binet’s book, but HHhH is history as written by Laurence Sterne. Binet wants to be true to history (I should probably write History here) and to the people who gave their lives to kill a man who was as close to a monster as people ever come. At the beginning of the novel/not-novel, Binet writes:
I devour everything I can find, in every possible language…I learn loads of things, some with only a distant connection to Heydrich, but I tell myself that everything can be useful, that I must immerse myself in a period to understand its spirit—and the thread of knowledge, once you pull at it, continues unraveling on its own…I write two pages for every thousand I read…I get the feeling that my thirst for documentation, healthy to begin with, is becoming dangerous—a pretext, basically, for putting off the moment when I have to start writing. (17**)
Binet does not approach history as a historian, but as a teacher of literature. He is fully aware of the inherent flaws of the format. But he also plays with the freedom that this recognition gives him. Near the end of HHhH, Binet as narrator places himself in the crypt of the Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, where the members of Anthropoid were cornered by the SS and killed. (He does this in spite of claiming not to be a character in his own book. By appearing in the first person in HHhH, of course Binet becomes a character.)
I have had to tag HHhH as a work of fiction and nonfiction because that’s really what it is. It’s about history, but also about the act of writing about history. Binet shares his struggle over how to write this incredible story even as he shares it with his readers. He does spend a lot of time on Heydrich’s background and personality, to the detriment of the story’s heroes: Valčik, Gabčik, and Kubiš. (I thought so, anyway.) Binet explains this somewhat by pointing out that there is so much information about Heydrich than there is about the members of Anthropoid and Binet (at least his manifestation in the pages of HHhH) is very worried about getting the facts right.
One would think that at book about writing a book would be terribly boring, but I was anything but bored as I read HHhH. Even as Binet confesses his struggles about his self-appointed task, the incredible story he is telling serves as an example of how important it is to get things right. Anthropoid wasn’t just about Valčik, Gabčik, and Kubiš; it also succeeded because of people that you don’t hear about. It succeeded because of other members of the Czech Resistance and their families. Further, Anthropoid happened because of everything else that was happening at the time. At the end (rather, the point where Binet chose to end his narrative), the author/narrator writes:
I know that this story will never truly end for me, that I will always be learning new details relating to the extraordinary story of the assassination attempt on Heydrich on May 27, 1942, by Czechoslovak parachutists sent from London. (326)
* The title is an abbreviation of a old joke. Heydrich was such a useful right hand man to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, that “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich”: Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.
** Quotes are from the 2009 hardcover edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, translated by Sam Taylor.