HHhH, By Laurent Binet

Whether you love or loathe history- read this book.


HHhH (an acronym of the German “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, which translates to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) is an Historical Novel. But don’t turn away if the very mention of the genre makes you sleepy; this book is a triumph. Whether you’re a fan of the genre, or have never delved into it before, it is in my opinion one of the most enjoyable and easily read books I have ever experienced, and also one of the most informative. It’s the story of a young boy’s fascination with a story of resistance, of spies, of covert operations. To quote Binet:

“This story is personal. That’s why my visions sometimes get mixed up with the known facts. It’s just how it is.”

And that’s what makes this story, this novel, so special.

The title and cover are deceptive; yes, this is a book about Heydrich- “The Butcher of Prague”, “The Blonde Beast”, generally one of the most evil brains of the Nazi Party- but it’s also about World War Two in general…and I guess it’s also not. It’s a story about Heydrich and his wife and children, about Hitler and Himmler and Goebbls and any other Nazis you come to think of, about Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, Britons, Americans, French, about the history of Europe, the politics of the war, the resistance movements, the traitors, the heroes, the millions who died, many who lived. But most importantly, it’s a book about history- the process of research, what it means, what it means today, how true it is or ultimately can ever be, how it may or may not have been lost, and how difficult it is to write, and indeed, to write well, honestly, and faithfully. That is the real heart of this story; Binet’s struggle to pay homage to the two Czechoslovakian resistance soldiers, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, and the people who gave up their homes, resources and ultimately lives to help them carry out Operation Anthropoid- the mission to assassinate Heydrich. It’s a book that so successfully conveys the hardships of not only writing a novel, but an historical one at that- where characters and places are real, and are owed a certain amount of respect if the author himself is to be respected. It’s a perfect example of the way our modern world needs to adapt to make people want to read history, to enjoy it, to relate to it, and this book shows you how it’s possible, because it’s embedded with the writer’s own thoughts, feelings, experiences. You feel it all right along with him. It’s why I have barely stopped talking about it, why it makes me so excited and so passionate about this story. It’s not just because I study history, and this is my topic of speciality; it seems as though history (or at least the telling of it) is evolving.

The unique blend of the authors own voice, his toying around with truth and fiction (what Binet refers to as “A stylistic drop in an ocean of reality”), with hard-core historical facts and references is what makes this book so accessible, and to me, so relevant. And I’d agree with him that:

“The good thing about writing a true story is that you don’t have to worry about giving an impression of realism.”

Read a great story, told superbly, and then realise it all actually happened. Why not?


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