The Gentleman Recommends: Laurent Binet

Book cover for HHhH by Laurent BinetAs I perch at my word processor stroking my mustache, adjusting my top hat and considering how to write a blog post recommending a historical meta-fictional novel that is nearly as concerned with how to tell the story of the plot to assassinate monstrous Nazi Reinhard Heydrich as it is with telling the story, I have a eureka moment: I simply needed to stop massaging my elegant mouth parka and making minute adjustments to my headgear and start typing words.

I wonder how to convey that, though time is spent with the author during his research and his periods of doubt, and that we hear quite a bit about the problems inherent in writing historical novels, the story never loses its considerable propulsion. A good recommender would give some sort of proof, but for some reason my head is in tremendous pain and also my top hat is way too tight, so I’m just going to muscle on and assume that my audience knows that they should always trust a gentleman, and that I am one, which is obvious because I am wearing a top hat, and I say I’m a gentleman, and a gentleman never lies, unless it is a white lie and meant to spare someone’s feelings.

So, “HHhH” (the abomination known as Heydrich had a nickname: “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich,” which translates to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) by Laurent Binet is the gripping true story of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis working to assassinate the horrifyingly evil Reinhard Heydrich. The momentum is sustained through the many asides wherein the author worries about how to approach his subject matter and how much to fictionalize the story when the true details are not available. (What color was Heydrich’s car? Which side of the train did he sit on?) As Binet says in the novel, “I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.”

And a fabulous story it is. Fascinating throughout, the novel culminates with a sequence as riveting as that in any thriller. It is fascinating because we are given a thorough look at the monstrosity known as Heydrich and the horror he propagated, at the brave men commissioned to end his life, and at the process of writing the meticulously researched story of these men.

I debate how to end this recommendation and decide to do so with one further sentence of encouragement to read this book if you have any interest in the atrocities in Europe circa World War II, and the story of two heroes helping to end them. Then I remember it would be a shame not to give a tip of the top hat to the translator. Read this book if you have any interest in the atrocities in Europe circa World War II and the story of two heroes helping to end them. Also, I’d like to give a tip of the top hat to novelist Sam Taylor, who, as far as I can tell given that I don’t read French and didn’t read the French version of this novel, did a tremendous job translating it.