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HHhH: A Novel


HHhH: A Novel Overview

“HHhH blew me away... It’s one of the best historical novels I’ve ever come across.”—Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero A Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction A Financial Times Best Book of the Year A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice "Unsurpassable... Told with elegance and grace... A magnificent book."—Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature HHhH: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” The most lethal man in Hitler’s cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two exiled operatives, a Slovak and a Czech, killed him and changed the course of history. In Laurent Binet’s mesmerizing debut, we follow Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to their fatal attack on Heydrich and their own brutal deaths in the basement of a Prague church. A seamless blend of memory, actuality, and Binet’s own remarkable imagination, HHhH is at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing—a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the debt we owe to history.

HHhH: A Novel Excerpt

Gabcík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabcík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?
So, Gabcík existed, and it was to this name that he answered (although not always). His story is as true as it is extraordinary. He and his comrades are, in my eyes, the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War. For a long time I have wanted to pay tribute to him. For a long time I have seen him, lying in his little room—shutters closed, window open—listening to the creak of the tram (going which way? I don’t know) that stops outside the Botanical Gardens. But if I put this image on paper, as I’m sneakily doing now, that won’t necessarily pay tribute to him. I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? I don’t want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. 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.

Copyright © 2009 by Éditions Grasset et Fasquelle Translation copyright © 2012 by Sam Taylor

HHhH: A Novel Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

This winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman artfully blends historical truth, imagination, and memory to render the stories of the two Czechoslovakian patriots who assassinated Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious "Butcher of Prague." A novel as vivid as history.

From the Publisher

HHhH blew me away. Binet’s style fuses it all together: a neutral, journalistic honesty sustained with a fiction writer’s zeal and story-telling instincts. It’s one of the best historical novels I’ve ever come across.”—Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero

“Brings a raw truth to an extraordinary act of resistance...A literary tour de force...A gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened.”—Alan Riding, The New York Times Book Review

“Binet has threaded his novel with a contemporary story, which is the drama of the book's own making.... The tone is clever, witty, casually postmodern....Captivating.”—James Wood, The New Yorker

HHhH is a startling novel....Who would expect a postmodern exploration of the limits of historical fiction to be a page-turner? But it is, absolutely....Fascinating.”—Madeline Miller, NPR

“Marvelous...Pulsing with life, lit by a wisp of dry humor, [and] fully imagined.”—Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

“One of the best and most original new novels I’ve read in years....HHhH is paced like a thriller, in which the endgame is the fate of the world.”—Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“[An] extraordinary first novel...HHhH, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, charts Heydrich’s rise through the Nazi ranks and Germany’s march to war...[to] the training in Britain of the Czech and Slovak assassins, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík, who parachuted into the country in December 1941 to kill Heydrich. Ample material for a decent espionage thriller, but Binet, ‘a slave to my scruples,’ makes something altogether less commonplace of it. His fidelity to the historical record, and obsessive urge to analyse those moments where surmise replaces fact, makes HHhH as much about the technical and moral processes of writing a historical novel as it is a historical novel...This unusual method results in a literary triumph...Using short, punchy chapters, Binet keeps his story haring along. The book’s final section, which recounts the assassination and subsequent manhunt in minute detail, is a masterpiece of tension, and its closing pages are extremely moving. Very few page-turners come as smart and original as this.”—Chris Power, The Times (London)

“[Binet] knows how to wrangle powerful moments from history.”—Susannah Meadows, The New York Times

“Every now and then a piece of work comes along that undermines the assumptions upon which all previous works have been built...These pieces of art complicate the genre for everyone that follows. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius did it for the memoir, Reservoir Dogs for action films, and now HHhH does it for the historical novel. Laurent Binet’s brilliantly translated debut deconstructs the process of fiction writing in the face of the brute reality of facts...Binet’s [HHhH] resets the path of the historical novel. He has a bright, bright future.”—David Annand, The Telegraph

“Ingenious and inventive... HHhH [is a] knockout blow in the boxing match of genre-defying literature. Binet steps between styles with ease... [and] has written a tale of Heydrich to defy most academic study. Moreover, Binet has managed to engage. His description is playful and joyous, at times even wrongfully celebratory, but always, always surprisingly on form. As a deserving winner of the Prix Goncourt, HHhH is a fantastic read. As a dynamic assault on the genres of contemporary writing, HHhH must join that coterie of celebrated titles: it is unique.”—Charles J. Haynes, California Literary Review

“An impressive debut...HHhH is fascinating not only because of the subject matter, but also because of the immense amount of detail Binet includes. The book transports and enraptures. It also impresses upon the reader the legacy of that history. His reflections on how to write the book with thoroughness and integrity and the effect of the project on his life are examples of how important the subject and the consequences of the history are to him. Heydrich’s life is not as documented as those of other high ranking Nazi officers. By researching and publishing HHhH, Binet reminds the reader that history has myriads of layers, but that they are all relevant in our contemporary world.”—Ashley McNelis, Bomb

“[HHhH is] quirky, clever...Binet makes a very perceptive and informed recording angel, one with an exceptionally clear and unfussy prose style (rendered extremely well by the translator, Sam Taylor). It doesn’t hurt that he has triple-A premium material, but Binet doesn’t push too hard to give the events a meaning. He lets them be the tragedy that they are, and as such they’re devastating.”—Lev Grossman,

“[HHhH] is as much a meditation on fictionalizing history—on factual truth versus a more expansive definition of truth, on the obligations and the agendas of writers—as it is a story about an assassination...Binet accomplishes something paradoxical. By clinging to the historical record and a very strict definition of truth, he transcends the barest facts and creates a work with its own heft and depth... [He] has produced the only essential piece of World War II fiction in years.”—Jessica Crispin, Barnes & Noble Review

“[HHhH] is utterly compelling and ruthlessly fascinating.”—Laurence Mackin, Irish Times

“A breezily charming novel, with a thrilling story that also happens to be true, by a gifted young author...[Binet] marshals and deploys his materials with exceptional dramatic skill...By the time you reach the book’s devastating finale, it’s this discreet storytelling mastery... that leaves the deepest impression.”—James Lasdun, The Guardian

“A cracking book... With its double-narrative and its authorial playfulness, HHhH reads in places like a stylistic homage to WG Sebald or Italo Calvino.”—Ruadhán MacCormaic, Irish Times

“That HHhH is so devastatingly brilliant is testament to both its originality and ambition. In fact, it would not be going too far to say it is a modern masterpiece.”—Rob Minshull, ABC (Brisbane)

HHhH triumphs precisely because it not only delicately, and sometimes grippingly, depicts a major historical moment, but because it manages to depict the unique challenges of 21st-century remembrance.”—Michael Lapointe, The Globe and Mail

HHhH is brilliant.” —Michel Basilières, The Toronto Star

“[A] remarkable first novel... Binet has created a rare thing: a book that tells us stories, mixing scholarship with suspense, while simultaneously laying bare and critiquing the book's construction. It's a difficult approach, which makes the enjoyment of reading it all the more striking.”—Matthew Tiffany, Plain-Dealer (Cleveland)

“There are not enough books that blend the profound and the entertaining. This is one and it comes in a sparkling translation by novelist Sam Taylor.”—John Gardner, New Zealand Herald

“An extraordinary first novel... A literary triumph... The books final section, which recounts the assassination and subsequent manhunt in minute detail, is a masterpiece of tension, and its closing pages are extremely moving. Very few page-turners come as smart and original as this.”—The Times (London)

“This is mesmeric stuff; history brought to chilling, potent life.”—Leyla Senai, The Independent

“I really don’t know how to praise this book further than to say that it changed my conception of the possibilities of literature. I cannot recommend this book more highly than saying, despite the cliche, that it is an actual must-read, both for its important content, but as importantly, for its avant-garde nature as it pushes forward the boundaries of historical fiction. (From a different lens, it represents the avant garde of teaching history. I can’t imagine anyone who would read this book and consequently not feel interested in the essential questions of historiography i.e. what can we truly know about history.) Go out, find this book, devour it, and prepare to find yourself changed, in ways you could not expect.”—Joe Winkler, Vol. 1 Brooklyn

“A brilliantly profound debut about the assassination of the architect of the Holocaust... I found myself turning pages faster and faster while I read about the two men who parachuted into the countryside and slowly closed in on Heydrich, even though I knew exactly what was about to happen. Maybe you can’t write a successful novel about the Holocaust. But, turns out, you can write a wonderful book—let’s call it a novel—about the impossibility of writing about the Holocaust.”—Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast

“Riveting... [HHhH is] exuberant and breathless and wonderful throughout.”—Weston Cutter, Kenyon Review

HHhH is a highly original piece of work, at once charming, moving, and gripping.”—Martin Amis, author of The Pregnant Widow

“A wonderful, ambitious book, and a triumph of translation.”—Colum McCann, National Book Award-winning author of Let the Great World Spin

HHhH is an astonishing book—absorbing, moving, for the agony and acuity with which its author engages the problem of making literary art from unbearable historical fact."—Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

“A work of absolute originality.”—Claude Lanzmann

“By the time I got to the last page of Binet’s masterpiece, I had to close my eyes and rethink history. I’m rethinking it still.”—Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

“Laurent Binet has given a new dimension to the non-fiction novel by weaving his writerly anxieties about the genre into the narrative, but his story is no less compelling for that, and the climax is unforgettable.”—David Lodge, Booker Prize-winning author of Small World and Nice Work

HHhH offers something all too rare in contemporary literature: the excitement of encountering something that feels genuinely new. Laurent Binet has thrown all the rules of authorial decorum out the window, and the result is a historical novel of the Czech resistance to the Nazis that is a playful, suspenseful delight.”—John Wray, author of Lowboy

“Read HHhH and be hooked, horrified, haunted, and (h)enthralled.”—Bernard Pivot, JDD

“[A] tour de force... Gripping... Binet demonstrates without a doubt that a self-aware, cerebral structure can be deployed in the service of a gripping historical read. [HHhH is] a perfect fusion of action and the avante-garde that deserves a place as a great WWII novel.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“The story of how two Czech agents—recruited by the British secret service—assassinated Hitler’s ruthless lieutenant Reinhard Heydrich in broad daylight on a Prague street in 1942 has been told by the historian. Now it is the novelist’s turn. And what a turn Binet delivers! Weaving together historical fact, fictional narrative, and authorial reflection in what he labels an infranovel, Binet gives readers a close-up look at the metamorphosis of documentary truth into literary art. It is an art that makes disturbingly real the cold cruelty of a Nazi titan intent on slaughtering innocent Jews and makes inspiringly luminous the courage of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš, the men who kill him. But it is also a curiously hybrid art that foregrounds the creative artist’s own struggle to wrest meaning out of his anarchic material. Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in Binet’s handling of the bizarre climax of his chronicle, when Gabcik stares down Heydrich’s car, only to have his gun jam, forcing Kubiš to lob a bomb, leaving the wounded Nazi leader to die days later of an infection. Readers will recognize why this brilliant work won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—and why an English translation was imperative!”—Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)

“[HHhH is a] soul-stirring work... The account of the assassination attempt and its nail-biting aftermath is brilliantly suspenseful... Binet deserves great kudos for retrieving this fateful, half-forgotten episode, spotlighting Nazi infamy, celebrating its resisters, and delivering the whole with panache.”—Kirkus (starred review)

Alan Riding

By placing himself in the story, alongside Heydrich and his assassins, the narrator challenges the traditional way historical fiction is written. We join him on his research trips to Prague; we learn his reactions to documents, books and movies; we hear him admit that he sometimes imagines what he cannot possibly know. And, in the end, his making of a historical novel brings a raw truth to an extraordinary act of resistance. This literary tour de force, now smoothly translated by Sam Taylor …[leaves] one intriguing question…unanswered: Is this a true account of how Binet wrote his book or did he plan its unusual structure from the start? Either way, the result is a gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened.
—The New York Times Book Review

Publishers Weekly

Taking its title from the German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,” Binet’s tour de force debut tells two stories: primarily that of the daring mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the prominent Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia known as “The Butcher” and “The Man with the Iron Heart” (a nickname of Hitler’s creation) among other epithets. It is also, however, the metafictional tale of Binet’s struggles with shaping the story. The novel’s 257 short chapters allow for these two strands to advance and entwine in gripping and revealing ways. When Binet stamps a key scene with the progressive dates of the three weeks in 2008 that it took him to render the eight-hour standoff in 1942, for instance, it deepens an already intense scene with a sense of the author’s reluctance to dispatch characters he admires. Those men, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabcik, “authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history,” were trained in England and parachuted back into Nazi-occupied Bohemia on a mission they both knew might be suicidal. After months of planning, on May 27, 1942, they ambushed Heydrich in Prague. Weeks later they were cornered in a church basement, and Binet renders an almost unbearable account of their final hours fending off the SS. With history never in question, it is Binet’s details (such as Heydrich succumbing to an infection from having “horsehairs from the Mercedes’s seats” blasted into his spleen) and his compassion for the partisans that elevate these set pieces. His thoughts on the perils of the genre are also succinct and striking; inserting invented characters into historical novels is “like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.” Binet demonstrates without a doubt that a self aware, cerebral structure can be deployed in the service of a gripping historical read. A perfect fusion of action and the avante-garde that deserves a place as a great WWII novel. (May)

Library Journal

Binet (La vie professionnelle de Laurent B) has written two novels in one here. The first is an often mesmerizing account of the assassination of the Blond Beast, Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia when those parts of dismembered Czechoslovakia were under German occupation during World War II. The second novel, which runs contiguously with the first, is a very self-conscious and ongoing explanation about how he wrote the book. The plot traces the trajectories of the Slovak Jozef Gabcík and the Czech Jan Kubiš, sent by the British secret service, as they parachute into their country to assassinate the Nazi overlord. In tailing them on their mission, the author also supplies a brief bio of the Nazi leader, known at the time as the most dangerous man in the Third Reich. The book's title consists of the German letters for "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich" (Heydrich reported directly to Nazi Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler). VERDICT Binet won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, France's most prestigious literary prize, for HHhH. This fluid translation by Taylor is a superb choice for lovers of historical literary works and even international thrillers. Most highly recommended.—Edward Cone, New York

Kirkus Reviews

The evergreen allure of Nazis as the embodiment of evil is what drives this French author's soul-stirring work: a hybrid of fact and meta-fiction that won the Prix Goncourt in 2010. Picture a man being driven to work in an open-top car, taking the same route every day. He is feared and loathed by passersby, yet he has no bodyguard. This is Heydrich in Prague in 1942: the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, supremely powerful, supremely vulnerable. He is Binet's anti-hero. His projected assassination is Binet's story, and Heydrich's would-be assassins (Gabcík the Slovak and Kubiš the Czech) are Binet's heroes. "Two men have to kill a third man." Simple, no? But the narration is not. Binet's alter ego narrator is a zealous amateur historian. Like all amateurs, he makes mistakes; disarmingly, he admits them. "I've been talking rubbish," he exclaims. He retracts some of his assertions; he regrets his inadequacy as a historian. Yet in fact he does a good job of putting the assassination in a geopolitical context. He excoriates the spinelessness of the British and French governments in acceding to Hitler's takeover of Czechoslovakia. He convincingly profiles Heydrich, aka the Blond Beast and the Hangman of Prague. This monster was Himmler's deputy in the SS (the goofy title refers to the belief that he was also Himmler's brain) and the principal architect of the Final Solution. The assassination, dubbed Operation Anthropoid, was the brainchild of Beneš, head of the Czech government-in-exile in London. He needed a coup to restore the morale of the Czech anti-Nazis. Gabcík and Kubiš parachute in. The arrival of these modest yet extraordinary patriots is like the first hint of dawn after a pitch-black night. They are embedded with the Czech resistance while they plan tactics. The account of the assassination attempt and its nail-biting aftermath is brilliantly suspenseful. Binet deserves great kudos for retrieving this fateful, half-forgotten episode, spotlighting Nazi infamy, celebrating its resisters, and delivering the whole with panache.

The Barnes & Noble Review

Heaven preserve us from any more novels set during World War II.

Every possible story has been told. Every shard of the fragmented world the war left us in has been examined and catalogued, every possible narrative turn already taken. One wants to beg the eager young novelist presenting his or her heartfelt story of love and redemption set against the backdrop of the death camps, please just stop it already. Find some new material — there is nothing genuine left here for you.

Of course, it's obvious why writers want to write the World War II novel. Never before were the stakes so high, and they never would be again. Never were the good guys and the bad guys so instantly recognizable. This particular setting heightens any cookie-cutter story almost immediately, no real work required. But that is also why so many of these novels are deeply disappointing. The writers of mediocre World War II fiction don't really have the strength to confront the material, they just drop in their characters from above like so many wooden marionettes. But you can't simply stand on the already dead corpse of Nazism and claim the victory as your own. Writers seem to forget that when you're going up against the Devil, you had better have a pretty powerful weapon.

Laurent Binet appears apologetic that he has written a novel with Nazis in it. In HHhH, he hedges, he repents, he qualifies. He knows all of the pitfalls of the genre and he uses them — and then immediately points out that he did so. And with all of the hemming and hawing, the writing and scratching out, the scribbling in the margins and constant authorial interference, Binet has produced the only essential piece of World War II fiction in years.

Binet believes he has found the one untold story of World War II. Somehow a small vein of ore has survived the years of strip mining by clumsy novelists, and he races toward it with his pickaxe. It's a particularly pure variety, the story of the assassination of one of the most important and cold- hearted Germans in Hitler's inner circle. It's none other than the architect of the Final Solution himself, Reinhard Heydrich. (Hence the strange title, HHhH, or Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich — Himmler's brain is called Heydrich.) The assassination itself is so incredibly pulpy — two parachutists, one Czech, one Slovakian, drop into Prague to take out the evil mastermind, and there's a gun that jams at the worst possible second, a traitor, a shootout in a cathedral, and a martyr's death — it's impossible to believe no one has told the story before. Just think of the film adaptation, sweeping the Oscars. Binet is sitting on a gold mine.

Only, in the course of writing the novel, Binet learns that the story has indeed been told before. More than once. In films, in books. He refuses to be discouraged, and he works to find fault in all that came before him so that he may justify the existence of his own account. There are factual errors in some, melodramatic flourishes in others. One novel, David Chacko's Like a Man, he almost envies for its certainty about how things went down. When Binet finds gaps in the historical record, even on minor details like what one of the assassins might have been wearing, he twists himself into knots, trying to decide whether to make something up to fill in that gap or whether he should say he doesn't know. Usually he does both. But Chacko confidently writes in declarative sentences. Binet complains, "So he bases his tale on a true story, fully exploiting its novelistic elements, blithely inventing when that helps the narration, but without being answerable to history. He's a skillful cheat. A trickster. Well...a novelist, basically."

Binet can't quite let himself be a novelist, and that is what makes the book so remarkable. It is as much a meditation on fictionalizing history — on factual truth versus a more expansive definition of truth, on the obligations and the agendas of writers — as it is a story about an assassination. The real historical story of Jozef Gabč¡k and Jan Kubiš may move in a relatively straight line, from the Czechoslovak government-in-exile under President Edvard Beneš in Britain to the parachute drop to Heydrich's car to the last hideout in the cathedral. It has a powerful thrust behind it, an inevitable momentum. Binet refuses to be pulled alongside it. When a friend asks him how much of the story he is inventing on his own, Binet snaps, "What would be the point of 'inventing' Nazism?"

"I'm not sure yet if I'm going to 'visualize' (that is, invent!) this meeting or not. If I do, it will be the clinching proof that fiction does not respect anything." Binet, a secondary school teacher, by the way, is right: fiction does not respect anything. The way it mucks about with the historical record to reveal deeper truths is often the source of its power. But that is possible only when the writer is up to the task. More often fiction dresses itself in in the heavy drapery of history, pretending the gravity is its own. Binet accomplishes something paradoxical. By clinging to the historical record and a very strict definition of truth, he transcends the barest facts and creates a work with its own heft and depth. Laurent Binet decided to take on a devil named Heydrich. It is our good fortune his arsenal was a full one.

Jessa Crispin is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of

Reviewer: Jessa Crispin

Readers' Reviews

HHhH: A Novel

Book Info

  • Book Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13: 9781250033345
  • ISBN-10: 1250033349
  • Number of Pages: 336
  • Approx Price: $12.99
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