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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

HHhH

by
Laurent Binet


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase HHhH



Title: HHhH
Author: Laurent Binet
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 327 pages
Original in: French
Availability: HHhH - US
HHhH - UK
HHhH - Canada
HHhH - Canada (French)
HHhH - India
HHhH - France
HHhH - Deutschland
HHhH - Italia
HHhH - España
  • French title: HHhH
  • Translated by Sam Taylor
  • Awarded the prix Goncourt du premier roman 2010

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Our Assessment:

B- : jarring but facile approach has some entertainment value, but works at best as a YA novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 28/4/2012 James Ley
Financial Times . 9/6/2012 Sam Leith
FAZ . 16/9/2011 Lorenz Jäger
The Guardian . 16/5/2012 James Lasdun
The Independent . 18/7/2012 Rebecca Armstrong
Independent on Sunday . 27/5/2012 Leyla Sanai
Irish Times A+ 5/5/2012 Laurence Mackin
Literary Review . 5/2012 Frederic Raphael
The LA Times A- 24/6/2012 Carolyn Kellogg
The National B 26/5/2012 Charly Wilder
The NY Observer . 24/4/2012 Dan Duray
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/4/2012 Alan Riding
The New Yorker . 21/5/2012 James Wood
Prospect . 6/2012 Ollie Cussen
Publishers Weekly A 27/2/2012 .
San Francisco Chronicle A 27/5/2012 Anthony Domestico
The Spectator . 12/5/2012 Anthony Cummins
The Telegraph A 3/5/2012 David Annand
Time . 25/4/2012 Lev Grossman
TLS . 5/10/2012 Adrian Tahourdin
Wall Street Journal D 20/4/2012 Sam Sacks


  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with opinions ranging from those who are very impressed to the completely dismissive

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t is also an essay about our relation to historical fact and the responsibilities of a work of fiction that sets out to dramatise real events. The problem Binet confronts is that the very concept of historical fiction is an oxymoron." - James Ley, The Age

  • "So either the publisherís marketing department won, or the whole thingís a big put-on. Itís that sort of book: clever, occasionally funny, a little bloodless, and self-regarding in the fullest sense of the term." - Sam Leith, Financial Times

  • "Eine gutwillige postmoderne Kritik kann diese steten Einschübe natürlich als „metafiktionale“ Reflexionen rechtfertigen. Den unbefangenen Leser stellen sie mit ihrem prätentiösen Ton doch auf eine harte Probe: „Ich glaube, ich beginne zu verstehen“, heißt es einmal. „Ich bin dabei, einen Infra-Roman zu schreiben.“ Binet träumt sich in die Rolle des Augenzeugen, ja fast des Mit-Widerständlers hinein." - Lorenz Jäger, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "HHhH is certainly a thoroughly captivating performance. 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 isn't that Binet brings any major new information to light, but he marshals and deploys his materials with exceptional dramatic skill." - James Lasdun, The Guardian

  • "It's all very modern, but Binet is clever enough to tell a ripping yarn at the same time as giving us footnotes as to how he has done it." - Rebecca Armstrong, The Independent

  • "The overall effect is that Binet and his thoughts and opinions loom large. He is not the first writer to do this. (...) Despite his fussing about the nature of historical fiction, this is mesmeric stuff; history brought to chilling, potent life." - Leyla Sanai, Independent on Sunday

  • "If this all sounds conflicted and self-involved, it isnít. (...) What we are left with is utterly compelling and ruthlessly fascinating. It is a mark of the bookís calibre that even if you are familiar with the details of the plot you still turn the pages praying for a better outcome." - Laurence Mackin, Irish Times

  • "What makes the novel unendurable, aside from the banal narrative devices, is -- certainly in translation -- the thesaurus of platitudes" - Frederic Raphael, Literary Review

  • "(A) marvelous, charming, engaging novel. (...) There is, nevertheless, a sliver of emptiness in the heart of this passionate book. As a result of his distaste for unnecessary invention, Binet creates characters that lack dimension." - Carolyn Kellogg, The Los Angeles Times

  • "HHhH is only really a novel in the most literal sense of the word: in its original mixture of memoir, history and fiction. (...) In truth, HHhH is a neurotic book. Though this can sometimes feel tedious or gimmicky, at its best, the author's ambivalence unlocks an exhilarating form of meta-historical fiction. (...) Binet is at his best when he stops agonising over the "ridiculous nature of novelistic invention" and just lets himself run with it." - Charly Wilder, The National

  • "HHhH is beyond question entertaining and good (it won the Prix Goncourtís first novel award in France in 2010), but itís also unorthodox in a way that, arguably, hinders its success. (...) Whether or not you like Mr. Binetís asides is a matter of taste, though youíd better like them if you choose to finish the book because they continue through to the end, not stopping even for the climax." - Dan Duray, The New York Observer

  • "This literary tour de force (.....) At the end of HHhH, however, one intriguing question remains unanswered: Is this a true account of how Binet wrote his book or did he plan its unusual structure from the start? Either way, the result is a gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened." - Alan Riding, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Itís a book of unconventionally conventional historical fiction (.....) So there is invention and artifice on every page of Binetís novel. Some of it is transparent and confessed, but most of it is hidden and unconfessed. (...) HHhH is certainly more interesting than most of its conventional rivals, but it also seems shallower than its more distinguished rivals. (...) He is suspicious of fiction, but not suspicious enough of the fictionality of the historical record." - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "The frustrated reader is left with an unhappy medium: the skeleton of a familiar story, and a charming narrator who refuses to offer any insight into what it meant to be a resistor, a collaborator, an exile, or a Nazi." - Ollie Cussen, Prospect

  • "Binet demonstrates without a doubt that a self aware, cerebral structure can be deployed in the service of a gripping historical read. A perfect fusion of action and the avante-garde that deserves a place as a great WWII novel." - Publishers Weekly

  • "HHhH, the brilliant, haunting debut novel by the French writer Laurent Binet, is a hodgepodge of genres, blending straightforward historical fiction with postmodern metafiction, archival research and personal memoir. (...) Formal experiments and metafiction aside, HHhH also has a hell of a plot (.....) Binet's first novel, excellently translated by Sam Taylor, succeeds both as fiction and as history." - Anthony Domestico, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Itís fresh, honest and exciting. (...) Read it in French if you can. This translation changes Simone Veil to Simone Weil, Tunis to Tunisia, and Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent. (...) There are cuts as well as slips. (...) Far better to have HHhH in English than not at all, of course, yet more could have been preserved, in terms of tone as well as detail." - Anthony Cummins, The Spectator

  • "Laurent Binetís brilliantly translated debut deconstructs the process of fiction writing in the face of the brute reality of facts. (...) If this sounds pompous, the book certainly isnít: it achieves a playful lightness with its comic updates on the state of Binetís relationship and its bruising analysis of other accounts of the period. And it is conventionally successful too, as both a gripping thriller and a moving testament to the heroes of the Czechoslovakian resistance." - David Annand, The Telegraph

  • "(T)he bookís quirky, clever, stunt-yness is typical of what tempered with uneasiness my enjoyment of this otherwise smart and accomplished book. (...) (A)t times one wishes that Binet had left more of that meta-stuff out, and given us the book with one fewer dimension." - Lev Grossman, Time

  • "Binet's book (...) succeeds on several levels: as an account of historical events it is compelling, but Binet also inserts himself into the narrative in a wholly original way (.....) The description of Heydrich's assassination and its aftermath is superbly done." - Adrian Tahourdin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The Heydrich story is one of the war's darkest, his murder a sensational coup; it would be hard not to turn the tale into an exciting book. Mr. Binet has tried. His rendering (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) is less an imaginative narrative of the historical event than a rambling meditation on the morality of "novelistic invention."" - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Historical fiction is, of course, the cheapest and most base form of fiction. In its reliance on the personal, autobiographical fiction is at least transparent in its dishonesty, but by being (ostensibly) grounded in the 'real' and based on 'facts' historical fiction has pretensions to so much more. Which isn't to say that there can't be some value to it, from the pure entertainment value historical fictions that simply try to recreate the past can offer (as well as the limited informational value of the more well-researched ones), to the games authors can play with history, such as -- to cite just two examples that Laurent Binet also discusses in HHhH -- Robert Harris' cleverly amusing alternate-history story, Fatherland (where the what-if he posits is: what if the Nazis had won the war ?) and Jonathan Littell's execrable The Kindly Ones ("simply 'Houellebecq does Nazism'", Binet summarizes, in his two-birds-with-one-stone dismissal), whose premise of a fictional character in real situations has great potential but fails entirely in Littell's hands.
       Hedging his bets, and trying to make a point, Binet doesn't shape HHhH purely as historical fiction. It is the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich -- popularly known as everything from 'The Butcher of Prague' and 'The Hangman' to more-than-just Himmler's right hand man (hence also the title, short for 'Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich' ('Himmler's brain is Heydrich') -- but it is also the story of the writing of HHhH. So, for example:

Through all the years that I carried the story around with me in my head, I never thought of giving it any other title than Operation Anthropoid (and if that's not the title you see on the cover, you will know that I gave in to the demands of my publisher, who didn't like it: too SF, too Robert Ludlum, apparently).
       Obviously, the published title is a different one; whether it was actually 'changed' -- so the story that is circulated, that it was done so at the publisher's behest -- or whether that is all just another part of the novel(ist)'s game (i.e. he always intended to call it HHhH but wants readers to believe otherwise) remains an open question. ('Operation Anthropoid' was the official name of the assassination-operation.)
       The story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich is, no doubt an interesting one. (It is also, in many ways, supremely uninteresting: everyone knows what happened, the facts are well-known (and to those to whom they are not, they can readily be found from a vast number of sources), and the story has often been told (indeed, Binet refers to and describes several different published fictional takes on and movie versions of the same events).) Certainly, as literary subject matter, the basics are undeniably good. As Binet notes, Heydrich is:
a wonderful character. It's as if a Dr.Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature. Except that Heydrich is not a paper monster.
       (But of course through this very exercise that he is undertaking, Binet is reducing (and puffing up) Heydrich to a 'paper monster'.)
       The rest of the story -- the assassins parachuting into occupied territory, the actual attack and Heydrich's painful death, the manhunt -- is also action-drama of the highest order. And, just in case, Binet pads it all with a good deal more Nazi horror, from the relevant -- describing the fall of Czechoslovakia -- to the more peripheral, such as the horrors of Babi Yar.
       Binet takes a particularly odd tack early on that undermines much of what he is doing -- arguably fatally so: he not only professes ignorance, but he goes so far as to present himself as almost indifferent. He appears to be open about it, but it's still a very strange game he plays here. For example, early on he announces:
I must admit that in this case -- regarding Heydrich's birthplace -- my knowledge is a bit sketchy. There are two towns in Germany called Halle, and I don't even know which one I'm talking about. Fort the time being, I think it's not important. We'll see.
       Or he reveals that he hasn't sought out a copy of Heydrich's wife's biography of her life with him; "So I should do without the book", he thinks.
       Having laid this groundwork of how selective (and/or careless) he is in his research, Binet seems to decide he can't leave it at that after all: he admits later that he has figured out which Halle Heydrich comes from, and he does acquire a copy of Lina Heydrich's memoirs. So why the games in the first place ? Certainly to place seeds of doubt in the reader's mind about his reliability, and his interest in (some of ?) the facts; but to what end ?
       Surely, for example, it should be clear to him and everyone from the outset that which Halle Heydrich comes from is a significant detail if one is writing about Heydrich. One might argue that Binet is only interested in aspects of Heydrich -- notably Heydrich as personification of Nazism, rather than an actual person -- and hence he doesn't want to know his origins, or how his wife saw him, but that is belied by his attention to other personal details about the man; here, as everywhere, Binet wants to have it both ways (and winds up having it neither).
       Binet remains torn between 'fact' and fiction. He wants to recount factually -- he's clear about that, condemning Littell's approach by maintaining: "inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence". But he's not entirely comfortable sticking to -- or even seeking out -- the facts. While he does refer to and quote from documentary accounts, he also turns repeatedly to film- and novel- versions of the events he recounts. Arguably, he is presenting his own account as the alternative (or summation) to the actual documentary accounts, but he's careful not to present it as serious or academic history: he emphasizes his amateur status in his stories of how he comes across much of the information or his visits to the relevant sites. It's as though he doesn't want to be seen as having authority.
       Binet also admits, towards the end:
My story has as many holes in it as a novel.
       Which begs several questions, including what his story is (he implies here, after all, that it's not a novel), what exactly he was expecting -- and why he doesn't try a bit harder to fill the damn holes.
       Ultimately, HHhH is a sort of Young Adult-introduction to the Nazis and Heydrich, an author more than a generation removed from the time he is writing about describing how he learns about these events and regurgitating what he learns -- in reasonably approachable and catchy form.
       As Binet admits:
This story is personal. That's why my visions sometimes get mixed up with the known facts. It's just how it is.
       The style is YA (Binet is no stylist, and some of the writing is dreadful, but at least it's simple and straightforward), and so is the presentation, the 257 short chapters and the fast-moving (back and forth) narrative surely ideal for the short-attention-span generation. It is fine as that -- arguably even pretty good.
       However, HHhH is in no way an adult novel -- and given how serious the subject matter is (and how the book has been marketed -- as serious literary fiction, no less) that is both dangerous and unfortunate.
       Very early on, Binet mentions that he reads a great deal of historical fiction and admits:
I am struck all the same by the fact that, in every case, fiction wins out over history.
       Perhaps he means HHhH to prove it can be otherwise -- but of course it can't. And why should it ? Fiction is (or can be) everything; history is mere history -- a banality. Both, however, should be taken seriously -- and in HHhH Binet doesn't accord either the respect they deserve. The result is a decent YA novel about Nazi horrors, and about learning about them, presented by an amiable, wide-eyed, bumbling guide; it is not, however, a serious treatment of either Heydrich and the Nazis, or of fiction itself.
       [Updated (10 May 2012): Anthony Cummins' review in The Spectator suggests there are considerable translation and editorial issues with regard to the English version of the novel. Comparing it to the French original (which I have unfortunately not seen) he finds numerous outright mistakes ("This translation changes Simone Veil to Simone Weil, Tunis to Tunisia, and Birmingham to Stoke-on-Trent"), and also notes: "There are cuts as well as slips". He suggests: "The French expects you to know the story already; the English worries you wonít keep up" -- which may well address several of the issues I had with the novel (though I suspect my fundamental disagreements remain intact). Clearly, however, this is yet another example of how translation and editing (don't forget that editorial interference !) can change a book (usually, I'd suggest, not for the better).]

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 May 2012

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Links:

HHhH: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Laurent Binet was born in 1972.

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© 2012-2013 the complete review

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