There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.
Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.
That said, I do not wish to criticize the book for a lack of focus. HHhH is hardly a book about Heydrich or Nazism or Gabčík and Kubiš. HHhH is about the limits of recreation. Much has already been made over the meta structure of the book and Binet’s interjections. Early in the story, Binet discovers an expensive volume that would aid in his research, though he is conflicted about whether or not to spend the money. The book in question, written by Heydrich’s wife, would surely pay an important role in the retelling of Heydrich’s wedding, but Binet justifies not buying the book by writing:
It’s not a bad story. I just don’t feel like doing a ballroom scene, and even less the romantic walk in the park. So it’s better for me not to know more of the details; that way I won’t be tempted to share them […] so in the end, maybe I can do without this overpriced book.
Such statements, which may suggest a lack of commitment to some readers, can also be seen as a confession, one that must ring true to even seasoned historians. There are limits to research, sure, but how often have writers imposed them on themselves? Is this laziness or the admission that not everything needs to be included? If we accept this, we must also accept that even the most exhaustively researched material is subject to the whims, tastes, and interpretation of the writer. Binet’s confessions do not shake my confidence in his ability to tell a story; they merely remind me that all nonfiction is filtered through a net of subjectivity.
What Binet decides is that he is writing an “infranovel”—this after reading Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. He wonders how Littell “knows that [Paul] Blobel had an Opel.” Binet’s contention is that “if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book.” He goes on to discuss the plausibility of Bobel having an Opel, but decides that, “plausible is not known.” This is the sort of quandary that torments him, the sort of small detail the average reader would accept without question. Such is Binet’s true concern in writing HHhH: to show the reader how much of their cherished historical works—be they billed as historical novels or nonfiction—are peppered with bullshit.
The savvy reader will not care. Many of us are aware that even the most detailed and researched work will fall short of the truth (whatever that is). And we will scratch our heads and wonder why the reading public privileges experience over invention. We will wonder, again, why memoirs are so damn important to people who would never pick up a novel. We will be reminded of the debacle over James Fray’s A Million Little Pieces and ask ourselves how so many people could be so easily duped and, more importantly, why they were so hurt to learn that this absurd book was really fiction.
If Binet succeeds in reminding readers that historical fiction, as HHhH could be labeled, is riddled with bits of speculation, that’s great. He has picked up and added to an interesting conversation. This is why HHhH should be read and discussed. Also, it’s quite fun. The story is good and, at times, riveting. Binet’s prose, translated by Sam Taylor, is enjoyable in a way that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, more so for the often amusing injections than the brief chapters, some of which total a sentence or two. There are definitely worse ways to introduce such a conversation to a wide reading public. To that end, the publicity onslaught of HHhH is justified. Here’s hoping that readers normally averse to works in translation will pick up a copy of this book and reconsider long held beliefs in the superiority of factual literature.