Thursday, 11 July 2013

Toying with an immovable history: HHhH

By Mary Corrigall

I'm expecting to meet a self-deprecating man. In HHhH, Laurent Binet explicitly rejects elements of the novel, certain chapters even, and allows the failures or shortcomings in the work to be transparent.
"It's clever, isn't it?" he says laughing, when I suggest that in pre-empting criticism of his book, he automatically undercuts arguments against it.
One of the main misgivings he expresses in HHhH (Random House Struik) is the fact that while it is intended to chart the heroic actions of a group of Czechoslovakian parachutists who assassinate a high-ranking Nazi officer, Reinhard Heydrich, he indulges in a quasi biography of this infamous SS officer dubbed the Butcher of Prague, among many other equally pejorative sobriquets to suit the barbaric acts he sanctioned. The curious title, HHhH, refers to a saying popular among the SS: Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich - Himmler's brain is called Heydrich, and confirms the focus of the novel, though Binet cunningly avoids naming him. It reads like a stutter, as if Heydrich's name is caught in the throat.
In detailing Heydrich's life story, however, and the pivotal role he played in arriving at the chilling "final solution" for the "problem" with the Jews in Europe, Binet draws attention to the necessity for or the sense of justice that Heydrich's assasination would present.
Similarly, in the frank and self-conscious manner in which Binet narrates history, he also generously points to some of the practicalities underpinning this seemingly incongruent bias; there simply isn't sufficient information about the parachutists to fill a book, while in contrast much is known about Heydrich. This, of course, points to a failing in how history is written; inevitably the focus tends to be on evil oppressor, rather than an in-depth look at the identities of the liberators or victims. Perhaps we are more curious about inexplicable malevolence. This might explain the inordinate amount of material pertaining to the Nazis on the History Channel - in his novel Binet admits to a weakness for this channel. His preoccupation with World War II is certainly rooted in its representation in popular culture; the constant revision or recycling of historical events.
Of course, as a novelist Binet could have invented the histories, motivations and characters of the Czech heroes, but it would have been in contravention of the ethical code that guides his novel: to remain faithful to the facts.
"Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom I've discussed all this, 'It's like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence,' " proposes Binet in HHhH.
It's rare to meet a novelist so bound to the truth. This noble gesture, however, seems not only impossible in relaying history - can it ever be faithfully rendered? - but also seems in contravention of the spirit of novel writing altogether; certainly it presents an extraordinary limit for a novelist.

Yet it is one that Binet attempts to work with, though, of course, his writer's ego takes charge at times and he permits himself to embellish and re-imagine some of the historical moments in this extraordinary story.
In such instances, however, he recovers his mission by drawing the reader's attention to the liberties he has taken with the truth.
"The temptation of fiction did not come from the writer's ego. It was more the kid (in me) who wants his airplane battle. I don't know how Heydrich's plane is shot down, but as a child I want to see it so I make it up, but I tell the reader," he explains in his heavily French-accented English.
Our conversation flows easily, though he admits that talking in English is challenging. After spending three days at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, his tolerance for English is waning and our interview begins with him emitting deep sighs at the prospect of our interaction.
Yet the exchange is smooth; in some ways it is smoothed over by the novel itself, which has already, in my mind, established an intimate link between us.
In HHhH, Binet the novelist engages in a dialogue with the reader, explaining why he has made certain decisions with the book and rejecting elements of it as he goes along. In this way he creates an intimacy with the reader. Yet I wonder whether this self-conscious mode he has adopted is simply a contrived postmodern ruse. Is the narrator really Binet?
"It is me. I never liked that distinction between narrator and author, it is useless. There are sometimes good reasons but it is mostly a trick because it is a tradition from the 19th century; you use a narrator even if it is yourself (speaking). I thought it was totally useless. I wanted to write the book as a conversation with the reader. Something straight. What is more natural and at the same time it created some complexity."
Like any good novelist, Binet is a sort of anti-novelist in that he rejects most of the established conventions associated with novel writing. Holding himself ransom to the truth is just one element he attempts to discard.
"I prefer to play with the structure of the book and try to tell the truth in such a way that the reader can still enjoy the suspense. At the beginning I didn't feel it was a novel and then I realised that the story could be read as a novel using the tools of the novel all but one, the fiction. But there was still lots of tools, it is not just about fiction," explains the fortysomething Frenchman.
Nevertheless, at the core of this unconventional novel is a battle between fact and fiction. I suspect that this struggle is between Binet the historian and Binet the novelist. HHhH is perhaps a product of a compromise between these two selves. He not only must resist temptations to fiddle with the facts, but much of his novel is about how other authors of books on Heydrich and his assassination have succumbed to the delights of fiction.
For Binet, the moment an author begins to embellish the truth, the credibility of the entire work is eroded. Binet's book doesn't necessarily engage with reality but with representations of it. For this reason Binet dubs his book an "intranovel", a novel about other novels. In typical writer fashion, he rejects and challenges those who have tackled the subject matter before, so in some ways HHhH is a book about the book that Binet doesn't want to write. Yet this fixation with the truth sees him caught up in quite banal arguments about some of the details of the assassination, such as the colour of Heydrich's vehicle - was it green or black?
This serves to show how the larger facts in this story are immovable; it is only the peripheral details that are really subject to any form of alteration, which gives rise to the idea that the tragic and shocking deeds that the Nazis perpetrated - Binet details the mass execution of Jews - cannot be transcended. Certainly, for all his determination to remain truthful, there is a sense that Binet wishes he could unwrite the larger facts.
"History is the only true casualty; you can reread it as much as you like, but you can never rewrite it," he observes in the final chapters of the book as the tragic fate of the Czech parachutists is revealed.
Thus it is clear that Binet wishes this work could be fictional. Towards the end of the novel, during its much-delayed climax - the assassination of Heydrich, which he plays out in slow motion - Binet identifies an interesting way of negotiating the struggle between fact and fiction.
He achieves this by inserting himself as a witness to the taut events he unravels - it's as if he is standing in the bend of the road when Heydrich's Mercedes-Benz approaches and his would-be assassins take aim. This allows him to recount the drama from an intimate position, where he suspends his knowledge of the outcome. I argue that this device challenges his commitment to the truth, but Binet disagrees.
"I don't change what has happened. I remain faithful to the story. But it is a novelist's job to make it vivid."
He refers to this device as "the hypotyposis", a Greek term describing a process of visualisation of a moment of action. Binet takes this process one step further in the final chapter, where he re-visualises the end of the story, allowing the Czech parachutists to survive.
"I try to avoid the fiction for so long, but I give into it at the very end."
Does this mean Binet's mission has failed? In the novel, Binet suggests that it's his noble intentions that count, not the end result. He uses a quote from Flaubert to support this view: "Our worth should be measured by our aspirations more than our works."  - published June 16, 2013.


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