2012 Books in Translation Non Fiction Recommended books

HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

Five words from the blurb: mission, assassinate, Nazi, novelist, truth

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book, but it is all justified. HHhH breaks the mould, creating a new genre that will change the way you look at non-fiction and lead you to question the accuracy of everything you read.

The book tells the compelling story of two Czechoslovakian parachutists who were sent to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Nazi secret services. Dropped near Prague in 1942 the pair spend months plotting the event, relying on the support of a secret network of people. The book also charts the rise of Heydrich, explaining the important role he had in the creation of the Nazi death camps.

Throughout the book the author explains the research he did to obtain each fact and ensures that nothing is ambiguous. To retain the gripping narrative style Binet frequently makes things up, but every time he does so the passage will be followed by one that explains exactly which parts were fabricated:

That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet – a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.

I loved this honesty and it made me realise how many difficult choices authors of historical fiction must make each time they write a scene.

I love meta-fiction and so appreciated the way the author addressed the reader directly. His chatty style was easy to read and often amusing. He made some blunt, often scathing, comments about other historical fiction authors, but although I didn’t always agree with him, it was refreshing to read about someone not scared to voice their opinion.

I’ve seen a few comments about people avoiding this book because of the Holocaust connections, but although the death camps were mentioned, this book does not describe them in graphic detail. It isn’t a depressing book; it is a gripping story revolving around whether or not the parachutists will be successful in their mission. It does take a while for the pace to build, but the final few chapters were some of the most exciting I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down and was totally engrossed in the story of these men.

HHhH shares many themes with The Street Sweeper, but unlike that amazing book, this is flawless. HHhH has leaped over The Street Sweeper to become my favourite read of 2012 so far.

Highly recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

I kept finding myself frustrated. Just when a section of non-fiction was beginning to really grip an authorial intervention would break the spell.  Just William’s Luck

The style is an unusual construction, but for me it was highly effective and extremely engaging. The Little Reader Library

I remain, however, equally fascinated and irritated by this volume – I still can’t call it a novel. Gaskella

26 replies on “HHhH by Laurent Binet”

I’m glad you enjoyed this book Jackie – and many thanks for the link.

Although I generally enjoy meta-fiction, this was the first time I’ve seen it applied to a historical story. For me, the primary factor in why I was frustrated, was that I didn’t like the author character much and now its some weeks later, I feel that it was a bit like watching commercial TV when the adverts come at a key point.

I guess I’m a bit of a lazy reader of historical novels. I don’t mind some artistic licence to improve the story; if I enjoy it that much I will turn to the history books to get the authorised version – something I frequently do.

Annabel, Great analogy! I guess I just love commercials – sometimes they are better than the TV programme 😉

I don’t mind authors using artisitc licence to improve the story – adding emotion to the facts normally improves things a lot. What I loved was how original this book was. It was great (and perhaps shocking?) to think about how much authors make up. It has changed my opinion of them a bit and any book that can do that impresses me. Sorry you didn’t love it as much as I did.

This one should arrive in the mail by the end of this week. I’m glad to see you liked it. I almost skipped your review altogether, just in case. I saw some of the hype for it over the weekend and fell for it completely. I think it sounds wounderful. I’ll find out on Friday.

cbjames, It is great to know you have a copy of this book. It is dividing opinion so I’ll be interested to know what side of the fence you fall. Enjoy!

I finally read a review about this book (yours). Before, I would see “Holocaust” and skipped the rest of the reviews so I’m glad you mention it and say it’s nothing graphical.

I subsequently still have no idea whether I will like the book, it’s a whole new thing for me, this meta-fiction. But now it’s on the “Potential” list, rather than the “Skip” list.

Glad to hear you’ve found a new favorite. The Street Sweeper is on my wishlist, I do want to read that one for sure!

Judith, I’m glad I’ve persuaded you to give this book a second look. I should warn you that The Street Sweeper has a lot of disturbing Holocaust scenes, whilst HHhH only mentions Holocaust briefly and isn’t disturbing. I hope you decide to read both books anyway and enjoy them as much as I did.

I love the whole postmodernist metafiction thing too and was sure I’d love this book, but I felt really frustrated for a while because the writing sounded like a high school kid doing a project or something. But, gradually, I realised he was making me question my own expectations and assumptions about historical fiction, which is what he intended. So, well done, Binet! I liked the “fictional” parts, but I do think he laboured the point when showing us how historical fiction is a construct. I liked the book, but he’s got a long way to go until he catches up with Umberto Eco. 🙂

Violet, It is interesting to learn that you struggled with this book at first. I loved it from the beginning and didn’t feel he over emphasized any points (although perhaps I’m just comparing it to The Street Sweeper which repeated key points far too much)
I haven’t read any Umberto Eco yet, but it sounds as though I should push him to the top of the list.

Great review. I was dithering over this book but decided not to read it as I don’t much like historical or meta-fiction. There are a lot of crime novels set during this period, eg Philip Kerr, which are very highly regarded and I feel I should read.

Maxine, If you don’t enjoy meta fiction then I’d stay well away from this book – it is one of the most extreme examples of meta fiction I’ve seen.

Damn damn damn, just when I thought I was getting a grip on the books I have to read RIGHT THIS MINUTE!!! When you endorse a book like this, I know I have to stop what I am doing and write it down. Which is exactly what I have done. It has made the short list. Now let’s just see if I get to it.

Sandy, I suspect that you’ll love The Street Sweeper, but I’m not sure what you’ll make of this one – it could go either way. I guarentee that you wont think it is just OK – you’ll either love it or hate it! I hope you decide to give it a try.

Sorry pressed button before I finished ,some one I admire had a very different view on this book and since then been wondering if I maybe over liked it is it more style over content still not sure ,all the best stu

Stu, I think this book has style AND content. I can see why the style wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I can’t fault the content – it is so fresh, new and compelling. It will be interesting to see if my thoughts change over time, but at the moment I am very positive about this one.

I was familiar with the background story because it was mentioned in Madeleine Albright’s book Prague Winter that I read recently. I’m not normally a fan of the author/narrator directly addressing the reader, but am impressed that you liked it so much.

Alyce, I think the tension of this book would be lost if you knew the outcome; so whilst I’d heard of Heydrich I didn’t know whether he was killed by these parachutists or not. It sounds as though this might not be for you as the author addresses the reader all the time. Perhaps I’ll have to read Prague Winter now 🙂

I think this is an amazing book, in style and content. So glad to hear how much you liked it Jackie. Thank you so much for linking to my review, I am thrilled by that.

I believe we love the same books. I got tons of books but I will put the street sweeper and this one on my TBR list!

Early this month I visited the Sansenhausen concentration camp in north of Berlin thinking I will never pick up the courage to see Auschwitz. Sansenhausen is the first prototype for the many to come. It’s my closest ever to the scene of atrocities.

Thanks for the recommendation.

Hadn’t heard of this one but it does sound intriguing. I actually don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I think I’d like this one because it sort of addresses the constructs of historical fiction.

I’ve been seriously considering reading HHhH. On the one hand, the premise sounds a little too strange to work and many reviews have commented about the author’s voice within the relatively historical account. Yet I keep coming across reviews like yours that make it apparent that there is something remarkable to this book. I’m beginning to suspect that it’ll be a book worth reading, if I don’t particularly enjoy it as much as other readers…

I thought the story was told in an interesting kind of way. I sort of knew it anyway because I saw the Kenneth Branagh film about Wansee and I knew the music “For the Victims Lidice” I think it’s called. I even visited the church in Prague where there is a permanent exhibition about the assassination. Thing is, I found myself thinking barbarous thoughts about Heydrich and that ragbag of nazis – I thought it was kind of right that Heydrich died a slow death and I felt my usual violent urges when thinking about the 3rd Reich.

Anyway, I think that kind of catharsis is good for the soul occasionally. Plus, I thought this was a damn fine read.

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