4.5 stars,  non-fiction

Review: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Everyone has heard of Reinhard Heydrich, “the Butcher of Prague.” And most have heard stories of his spectacular assassination at the hands of two Czechoslovakian partisans. But who exactly were the forgotten heroes who killed one of history’s most notorious men? 

In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heiBt Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich), we follow the lives of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš, the Slovak and the Czech responsible for Heydrich’s death. From their heroic escape from Nazi-occupied Prague to their recruitment by the British secret services; from their meticulous preparation and training to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone; from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal deaths in the basement of a Prague church, Binet narrates the compelling story of these two incredible men, rescuing their heroic acts from obscurity.

When I watch the news, when I read the paper, when I meet people, when I hang out with friends and acquaintances, when I see how each of us struggles, as best we can, through life’s absurd meanderings, I think that the world is ridiculous, moving and cruel.  The same is true for this book: the story is cruel, the protagonists are moving, and I am ridiculous”  [Chapter 251, Vintage paperback]

Oh my goodness, this book.  This book broke my heart and is what all non-fiction should be like.

I haven’t read much non-fiction at all in recent years because I do a lot of it during my day job.  It turns out that well-written non-fiction is a whole different world to legal journals…who knew?  There’s such passion in Binet’s writing that it shines off the pages and is impossible to resist.
A slightly unusual blend of narrative styles, reading HHhH is a little like wandering around a museum with a knowledgeable guide: there’s a relaxed, almost chatty tone as Binet talks you through the “rise” of Reinhard Heydrich and the training of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš as his to-be assassins but with plenty of tangents as Binet gets side-tracked by another anecdote or gets so caught up in the telling of the story that he dawdles off into the background of people involved.  There’s one anecdote that has really stuck with me about a Ukrainian football team pitted against a German team.  After refusing to start proceedings by saluting with a sturdy ‘Heil Hitler!’, the Ukrainian team went on to commit a grievous insult and actually win the match 5-1.  After strengthening their team with professional football players from Berlin, the Luftwaffe went on to lose the return fixture 5-3.  During the rush on the pitch after the match, much of the Ukrainian team disappeared and were never seen again, with the captain allegedly being executed while shouting, “Communist sport will never die!”.  The closing line to this anecdote reads, “I’m worried that there are some errors in what I’ve written: since this subject has no direct link with Heydrich, I haven’t had time to investigate more deeply.  But I didn’t want to write about Kiev without mentioning this incredible story“.  Like I said, very much like talking with a friend around and about a beloved topic.

I’ve written before about how I find the sheer scale of World War II utterly incomprehensible and this another superb book for bringing to the fore some of the many, many instances of bravery and tragedy.  Only this time, they’re real.  Heart-breaking in fiction, the non-fiction is all the more devastating.  I’m always amazed and inspired by the courage shown by “ordinary” people during war time.  Gabcik and Kubiš were astoundingly brave but they were supported by any number of equally courageous people that risked life and limb (and their family’s lives and limbs, incidentally) to offer shelter, food and local support.  There’s no way to describe how much I admired the people that I read about in this book.  ‘Admiration’ is even too weak a word…

HHhH reads almost like fiction: I felt gripped by the pages and my chest hurt with how desperately I wanted Heydrich’s nemeses to win through.  The problem with non-fiction, of course, is that the author can’t decide how their subjects’ lives pan out.  I was so caught up in Binet’s account of Gabcik and Kubiš (and so remiss in my WWII history) that I actually had to go and research the story so that I could relax and absorb the detail.

My only slight reservation (that stops this book being a glowing five stars) was that the line between fiction and non-fiction wasn’t always solid.  I’ve already said that I loved the writing style but there were occasions where I would read a few chapters only to turn the page and read, “I made that up…but wouldn’t that have been perfect?”.  I didn’t mind where the upshot was that dialogue had been added in to flesh out an account of a real event but I was a little disconcerted when it turned out that an event I had just been tearing-up or gawping over turned out to be almost made up.  Still, I half think that the point of reading non-fiction is for that moment where you really get caught up in a topic and wander off to do your own digging so it was a feature I could tolerate well enough.
Overall:  If you have even the remotest interest in the history of World War II, you really must pick up HHhH.  If you are looking for a meticulously told and laid out historical account of Heydrich’s life and demise, you might be disappointed. If you’re looking for something a little more relaxed and focussed on the human side of WWII, I honestly haven’t read a book that I would recommend more.  Such a wonderful, wonderful book that I will read again and again.

Date finished:  24 March 2013
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Non-fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Vintage in January 2013