Books

The Worst Man Who Ever Lived: 'HHhH'

The eccentric title is a reference to the novel's putative subject, the assassinated Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, "the most dangerous man in the Third Reich, the Hangman of Prague, the Butcher, the Blond Beast, the Man with the Iron Heart, the worst creature ever forged in the burning fires of hell."


HHhH

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Format: Hardcover
Price: $26.00
Author: Laurent Binet
Translator: Sam Taylor
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: 2012-07
Amazon

First, the eccentric title: HHhH. It's a reference to the novel’s putative subject, the assassinated Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich, the Hangman of Prague, the Butcher, the Blond Beast… the Goat…t he Man with the Iron Heart, the worst creature ever forged in the burning fires of hell…” who, as the one-time right-hand man of the regrettably un-assassinated Heinrich Himmler, also was known (by the SS) as Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”

Hence, HHhH.

This strange and ambitious hybrid novel – really more a work of non-fiction, leavened by the author’s frustrated and occasionally frustrating musings about his inability to get at the putrid heart of his disgusting subject – is not wholly successful. Heydrich, the "protector of Bohemia and Moravia", i.e., the Hitler-appointed ruler of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, is not an easy human being to elucidate. For, in addition to doling out local death decrees from Prague’s Czernin Palace, where he was installed in the autumn of 1941 as executioner-in-chief, Heydrich also served as one of the principal architects of the Final Solution, which he executed with the unparalleled efficiency of a “killer bureaucrat”, i.e., the sort of sadistic, soulless and highly intelligent psychopath that characterized the leadership of the Third Reich.

It's not that the author, Laurent Binet (in a translation from the French by Sam Taylor), doesn’t attempt to understand what “motivated” Heydrich, a plausible candidate for the worst man who ever lived. Rather, he recognizes the inherent absurdity of his task, and so he shifts his focus, even as he tells of Heydrich’s rise through the ranks of the SS, to his own struggles to interpret, understand and get the story straight.

So the second character in this “infranovel”, as Binet calls it, is, in classic albeit rather tired post-modern fashion, Binet himself. But the third and fourth protagonists, a Czech and a Slovak, Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, recruited by a London-based resistance group to assassinate Heydrich, form the real core of this story, as we follow them from Czechoslovakia to London and back again, where they intercept Heydrich’s Mercedes and carry out a partially botched but ultimately successful assassination and then, as in a scene from a period movie (except that it really happened), battle scores of SS storm troopers from their hiding place in the crypt of an Orthodox Church.

The latter part of this novel, in which Binet interweaves the story of Heydrich’s slow death from his wounds and the hunt for Gabčik and Kubiš with Binet’s own insecure musings on the effectiveness of his storytelling, is rather stirring, and expertly told.

One can’t help wondering though, what the actual point of the third strand is. On the one hand, it's probably difficult to tell the story of the Final Solution, or even one small part of it, without adopting a rather post-modern viewpoint on the limitations of art and the artist in the face of unencompassable evil; on the other hand, entering into a novel that, in effect, admits defeat from the very earliest pages – Binet acknowledges a “long-held disgust for realistic novels” and refers to “the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention” – can be rather dispiriting, even if Binet’s dry, despairing wit makes it, at the same time, paradoxically engrossing.

What’s interesting and admirable, though, is that Binet at least makes the attempt to research, explain and “understand” (as if such a thing were possible) monstrosities such as Babi Yar, site of one of the largest mass murders ever perpetrated, and the razing of Lidice. Like Gabčik and Kubiš themselves, who knew they had virtually no chance of escaping their operation against Heydrich with their lives, and had no way of knowing, for that matter, if the Third Reich could even be defeated, but went ahead with their hopeless mission anyway and largely succeeded, Binet himself undertakes a daunting task and partially prevails.

Binet could have fully prevailed, however, if he had eschewed the shaky experiments and fully embraced either fiction or non-fiction, while implicitly acknowledging, in either event, that historical events are never going to be fully knowable and comprehensible in every detail. Anatole France once said, “he’s a truly great historian; he has enriched his subject with a new uncertainty.” Nonetheless, Babi Yar happened, and Lidice happened, and Heydrich and their Czech and Slovak antagonists existed.

Gabčik and Kubiš and their comrades were, Binet asserts, “the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War.” On an entirely different but not negligible level, Binet himself hopelessly but not without success attempts to honor their memories by authoring an account of their lives and their legacy, which is to say a world in which books like this can still be written.

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