8 July, 2013Issue 22.6FictionLiteratureTranslation

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Fiction Wins Out

Helena Taylor

Laurent Binet
Translated by Sam Taylor
Harvill Secker, 2012
336 pages
ISBN 978-1846554797


HHhH tells of Operation Anthropoid, the 1942 assassination attempt on SS General and “Protector” of annexed Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich, by a Czech, Jan Kubiš and a Slovak, Jozef Gabčík. The novel tracks Heydrich’s ruthless rise through the ranks of the SS in Germany until he is sent to Prague to crush the growing resistance—a resistance partly co-ordinated from London by the Czech government-in-exile. The two men, Kubiš and Gabčík, are selected to parachute into the country to assassinate Heydrich—a man so sure of his invulnerability and authority that he drives around in an open-top Mercedes with a single guard.

Published to great critical acclaim in France, HHhH won the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and the Prix des Lecteurs du Livre de Poche; Sam Taylor’s much-feted translation into English, shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, has since furthered the book’s acclaim. The title—a potentially perilous moment for any translator—remains the same in English as in French, as the letters are an acronym for a sentence in German: Himmlers Hirn hei√üt Heydrich, “Himmler’s Brain is called Heydrich”. A phonetic force might be lost in translation: the repeated letter H sounds in French like the verb “hacher”, to mince or chop. Nevertheless, when four Hs are stamped in red across a cover adorned with SS insignia, any reader would think of Himmler, or Hitler, or Holocaust; an Anglophone reader might also think of Hell. This title works across languages to evoke the relentless horror of the Nazi regime.

Turning to the back cover of the English edition, we find a comment by Bret Easton Ellis: “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”. Neutral journalistic honesty combined with story-telling instincts—I prepare myself to be immersed in the world of the past, transported by scene setting, dialogue, perhaps a little bit of embellishment, though all of it well researched, delivered by an impartial, omniscient narrator. In other words, I’m expecting a story.

Opening the book, it is immediately clear that this is no ordinary “historical novel”. The first line betrays a self-conscious anxiety about the genre: “Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist”. The narrator proceeds to set the scene:

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. […] 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).

Binet is acutely aware of the literary tradition to which such an interventionist narrative voice belongs. A few sentences later, he quotes the Czech writer Milan Kundera, another author who self-consciously works his anxieties about genre into the fabric of the narrative. And Kundera—a Francophile who wrote many of his works in French—was also strongly aware of this tradition: he wrote a play based on Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste, the highly artful 18th-century novel that explores the problem of literary illusion.

Kundera worries about naming his characters, but Binet is different. “In my opinion,” he writes, “Kundera should have gone further: “what could be more vulgar than an invented character?”” Where Kundera’s or Diderot’s narrator might write “I don’t know if he went straight to bed” to demonstrate that the character has no existence beyond the world of the novel, the “characters” in this story are historical, they “really did exist”. So when the narrator says that he does not know which way the tram is going, he means it. He wants to write a scrupulously accurate account, avoiding the usual fictional embellishments of the historical novel: to tell the “story, I mean, history”. And so we follow him as he writes this history and reflects on writing it, as he visits Prague and immerses himself in research.

The narrator is particularly concerned with how to tell the story. “I read a lot of historical novels, to see how others deal with the genre’s constraints.” He is critical of these authors for inventing scenes they cannot know happened, for careless narrative flair and for mixing the plausible with the real. He calls David Chacko “a skillful cheat. A trickster”. He bewails the low standards of accuracy expected of the historical novel. When a friend reads an extract from a chapter we have just read and assumes it is embellished, the narrator is enraged: “Everyone finds it normal, fudging reality to make a screenplay more dramatic or adding coherence to the narrative of a character whose real path probably included too many random ups and downs”. This kind of self-conscious scrutiny recurs throughout the novel. He alerts us to moments when his narrative is merely plausible, stops to question scenes after we have read them, or immediately undermines them: “at 9am the first German tank enters the city […] Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague”. Such relentless questioning jolts us out of the immersion we begin to experience as the story gets going. Just tell me the story, I think, and then berate myself for my laziness in the face of such rigour. Improving my attitude, I soon find myself putting all my faith in his scrutinising narrative. I feel relieved: at least he is not “a skillful cheat”, not tricking me by inserting details he has imagined or extrapolated. He even tells us when he doesn’t know things—”I become aware to my horror of the mistakes I’ve made”—what could be more reliable than this self-effacing honesty? He uses photo evidence, personnel reports from the British army, listens to tapes.

And yet, as I begin to have confidence in this scrupulous stop-and-start structure, my suspicions are alerted. The narrator displays some of the same careless flair he has criticised. When his girlfriend challenges his creative description of Heydrich that “the blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his head”he deletes it. But then, he writes, “unfortunately that creates an emptiness that I don’t like. […] In the afternoon, I put it back in”. But at least he’s telling us what he’s doing, I think, surely that means we can trust him? My trust wavers again when I read, “sometimes I feel like a character in a Borges story”. As the story ends in a climactic battle, the narrator begins to merge with the world of his characters. The time of his writing becomes the time of their fighting; one of his days is one of their hours and there is no acknowledged divide between them: “June 2, 2008. The Germans bring a gigantic searchlight […]”. By the end he cannot end without killing himself: “the truth is that I don’t want to finish the story […] I fear I’m in Prague for the last time”. The final lines of the novel read, “and me? I am there too perhaps”.

It’s a far cry from the “neutral journalistic honesty” suggested by Ellis (a surprising comment given the unreliability of the narrative voice in his own novel, American Psycho) and, more crucially, it programmatically declaims such honesty in the narrator’s unforgiving survey of historical novels that confuse fact and fiction. I have been beguiled by his self-consciousness, I realise, taken in by his ever-insistent claims of historical accuracy. The suspicion and scrutiny we’ve been warned to apply to other historical novels should have been applied to this one all along. As he says in an early chapter, “in every case, fiction wins out”. History requires narrative and all narrative requires fiction. Ah ha! I think, got it.

But this leaves me uneasy. I don’t want to be suspicious; I don’t want to think that he might have made himself the main character in a story written (he claims) as a tribute to the resistance and the parachutists. I don’t want to doubt his sincerity on this point: these are serious matters. But, although “the heroes” are Kubiš and Gabčík, and the narrative is set up with a focus on Heydrich, the dominant character is the one telling the story. Is this not, I think, a little self-serving? A little arrogant?

And yet, what if the point is to expose this very arrogance? Most reviewers have confused the narrator with Binet himself, unsure what these playful interventions add to the story. Or at best they have wondered whether or not they are the same person. At worst, they have actually asked him. But Binet and the narrator should not be conflated. We have entered the world of a narrator-character, a man attempting to write an account of the assassination of the “Hangman of Prague”. The reference to Kundera and the tradition of narrators who are not simply unreliable but also fictional should have been heeded more carefully. By presenting us with such an interventionist narrator, Binet playfully emphasises that historiography is always as much about the teller as the subject told; it can never be anything but slanted, selective, and interpretive. Binet satirises this narrator’s pretensions by turning him into a victim of his own worst nightmare, by making him believe he is also in the story.

The novel is more than a metafictional puzzle. The bravery of the parachutists, the horrors of the post-assassination-attempt reprisals, the punishment of the countless men and women involved in the resistance, and the impossibility of doing justice to all these extraordinary figures lost in the abyss of history—all are poignantly conveyed. The book is gripping. But facing up to the complexities of the narrative voice is essential. The novel is as much an exercise in constructing and testing resistance to narratives—political, ideological or historical—as it is a tale about the Czech resistance.

Helena Taylor is reading for a DPhil in French at St Anne’s College, Oxford.