In Sam Taylor’s novel, The Republic of Trees, the characters attempt to build a society in the present day based on Rousseau’s Social Contract. Predictably, they find the revivification fraught with difficulties. Taylor’s latest project (and he’s discussed with me another of his works here) is a translation of Laurent Binet’s ‘infranovel’ HHhH, which spends much of its time not so much telling its story – of the assassination in 1942 of the Nazi strongman Reinhard Heydrich – as worrying at it. Binet has said that his difficulty was in no small part that the term ‘nonfiction novel’ does not exist in French; certainly HHhH reads somewhat familiarily to an Anglophone rather more used to the form, but Binet’s eloquence on the practicalities and ethics of telling history, of reviving forgotten and desecrated people and events, are nevertheless as potently posed an iteration of the arguments as I’ve read.
HHhH is narrated by an authorial voice intensely partisan in its approach: on the Munich Agremeent, he snarls viciously, “Thus it is a French poet who pronounces, almost performatively, the death sentence of Czechoslovakia, the country I love most in the world.” [C64] Indeed, his passion for the Czech and the Slovak who enacted Operation Anthropoid, the British-backed plot to kill the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, is the powering force behind the novel: “I wish to pay my respects to these men and women: that’s what I’m trying to say, however clumsily.” [C251] Binet’s “falsely offhand tone” [C170] – that naive clumsiness he purports to display – is the over-riding characteristic of HHhH, which despite its structural and thematic fluidity pretends to real difficulty in dealing with its subject matter.
“Inventing a character to understand historical facts is like trying to fabricate evidence,” the author announces at one point [C192], denouncing “the peurile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention.” [C107] HHhH is an acronym of the German phrase “Himmlers Hirn heisst” [“Himmler’s Brain is called Heydrich”], apparently popularly whispered about the pair at the top of the Sicherheitsdienst; but it also murmurs of Hitler, history and Holocaust – Hs which loom impassably over Binet and his book. Both are haunted by “the pressure of history” [C140] – the impossibility of respectfully and with complete accuracy conveying an unknowable past which it is nonetheless crucial to know. HHhH cavorts in the playground of this paradox: “No reader could possibly retain this list of names,” Binet-the-author signs, “so why write it? For you to remember them, I would have to turn them into characters. Unfair, but there you go.” [C150]
Indeed, HHhH is as much literary criticism – a disputation on the merits and the demerits of the novel – as it is any kind of history. Binet-the-author purports simply to wish to tell a story first told to him by his father, a tale of self-sacrifice which has fascinated him since boyhood. But he spends time offering opinions on Kundera (on the first page) and Barthes (on its penultimate); he analyses Fatherland and The Kindly Ones, and worries that, in Seven Men at Daybreak, Alan Burgess committed the unforgivable transgression of assuming that, as they almost certainly did, the Anthropoid parachutists checked their release boxes before jumping into Czechoslovakia. (He later reads David Chacko’s Like a Man, a novel with which he cannot find a single factual fault, and which corroborates another of Burgess’s assumed mistakes – the colour of Heydrich’s Mercedes – and he sets to worrying all over again.)
In an interesting piece on the novel and its relationship to historical fiction in the New Yorker, James Wood argues that Binet sets out to demonstrate that “invented facts—invented characters, for that matter—have no place in historical fiction, and weaken it both aesthetically and morally.” I’m not at all sure this isn’t a shallow reading of the novel: it seems to me rather that HHhH is fully aware of the power and necessity of invention – that it indulges in it frequently – but that it is also conscious of a responsibility to “these people, these real people who actually existed” [C150]. Wood thinks this is having your cake and eating it; I think the novel is more supple than that. In an interview with the Guardian cited by Wood, Binet declares that he and Binet-as-author are inseparable, but HHhH is nevertheless patently knowing in its earnestness, and Binet-as-author is a faintly ridiculous figure, worrying about girlfriends and getting over-enthusiastic about a tangential scrap of paper in some dusty archive. Having fully dissected the incompleteness of the historical record, Binet-as-author is given the temerity to say, “History is a prophet who says ‘We'” [C220]. This is an approach both po- and Janus-faced – and even if it is having your cake and eating it, what other point of gâteaux is there?
Where Wood and I agree is that all this makes Binet rather more old-fashioned than the analysis of him as a frustrated postmodernist might suggest: for starters, the valorising of the Resistance fighters’ brave nationalism feels oddly tub-thumping, and depicting Chamberlain as a snivelling coward, heedless of that colossus Churchill, is another instance of the novel’s fierce partiality. But that again all seems to be the point: for all its protestations, HHhH isn’t history so much as polemic, isn’t a novel so much as a diatribe, and, while certainly no Austerlitz (what is?), demonstrates cogently and engagingly that all history is novelistic, and all novels historical.
Binet seeks not to bury historical fiction but to praise it, to render it central to literary effort: his retractions aren’t all in one direction, crossing out an invention in favour of what he knows to be true, however diminished this leaves the scene’s significance; at one point, for instance, he rewrites a scene of transcribed dialogue so that it better fits his characters. The exchanges of HHhH are all a two-way street, each filling the gaps and holes in the other. “I can’t think of a single situation that would allow me to imagine even a watered-down version of what filled Gabčík’s mind,” Binet writes at the climactic moment of Operation Anthropoid. Nor can any of us, perhaps – and this leaves us all at the foothills of those impassable Hs, imagining.