HHhH

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 Gabčík 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.

April 19: "What you see first, after the starting gun's crack, is a column of bobbing runners, thousands of them, surging downhill..."

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