HHhH, by Laurent Binet

Ostensibly a telling of the story of Operation Anthropoid, in which two members of the resistance were parachuted into Czechoslovakia in 1942 with the aim of assassinating Reinhard Heydrich, the "Hangman of Prague". "Ostensibly", because the style of the book is a kind of meta-novel, in which the author talks about how he's come to research and write the book, and the problems he has in assembling the facts to make a narrative that properly honours the heroes of the story.

When I saw the film "Operation Daybreak", I thought it was a bit too too fantastical to be true, but so far as I can remember, the film must have stuck fairly closely to the facts.

In some ways the book reminded me of How Far Can You Go, in which Lodge talks to the reader about his thought processes as he writes, and muses on the page about what names he should give to the characters. That's pure fiction though, and this book is describing history, and - if you believe what Binet says - is trying to be scrupulously accurate.

What was quite interesting was that it's not really clear whether the author comments are part of the novel or not: is he really describing his own emotions and personal experience, or is this just fictional padding? I suspect the former, although I think it would be better if it were the latter.

Thinking about it, one thing that inclined me to suppose that these authorial comments were in fact unreliable was that he talks about the research he's done on the subject, and quotes books and novels that he's read with varying degrees of approval. But there were no attributions at the front of this book, thanking other publishers for permission to quote their works. So I thought "perhaps he's just made all this up, it's not really a quote from so-and-so's book". I'm still not sure if that's significant or not.

"Binet" comes across mainly as apologetic: he regrets being unable to locate all the facts he needs to write a complete account. For example, "chapter 170" contains an entry from Goebbels's diary of February 6 1942, which begins "Gregory gave me a report on the protectorate...". After the diary extract, Binet says

Sorry, I don't have the faintest idea who this Gregory could be. And just so my falsely offhand tone doesn't give you the wrong idea: I have tried to find out!

He also worries about how legitimate it is to guess at what his characters said or thought, and then there are places where he talks about his discussions about the progress of the book with his girlfriend, and her opinion of the story so far.

The book is structured with very short "chapters" so is very easy to read ("I'll just read another chapter") from that point of view, but it's also very readable. I enjoyed it.

Completed : 02-Mar-2013

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