Inside Himmler’s Brain – ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

You should read this book.  It’s very very good.  If you are interested in WWII, you should read it.  If you like a good thriller, you should read it. If you like a well-written novel, you should read it.  If you want to understand the best and worst of humanity, you should read it.

So? Am I Clear? You should read this book.

Then, maybe you can help me decide, is this a novel, is it brilliant non-fiction or is it scripted reality? (See my observations on scripted reality in my review of the equally excellent Wordsmith’s Tale).

The book is an in-depth account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, ‘the hangman of Prague’, but it is a whole lot more than that. It is a tale of obsession, bravery and the indomitable human spirit. Is also, inevitably, about the Holocaust.  It is informative, gripping and above all things, accurate.  Or at least so the author keeps telling us.

The story of the Czech plot to assassinate Heydrich is an incredible one.  The planning, the attempt and the aftermath, are storytelling gold.  For even a half-decent writer, it would be hard to mess up.  The author of ‘HHhH’ Lauren Binet, has chosen to place himself in the narrative, where he talks of his obsession with representing only the facts, and his worries about inventing unverifiable conversations between his characters.  As an author, he is continually driven to find new information, and to seek out new viewpoints that shed more light on his story.  All this to enhance its authenticity.  On one level, having the author’s voice adds little.  It breaks the flow and it seems a little vainglorious.  In other ways it is a powerful device, enabling Binet to go off at tangents, to tell the reader about other events that were going on at the same time, in a way that would have been impossible were he writing a straightforward narrative.

Of course, if he were writing a history book, portraying simultaneous events would be easy, and this is where I am confused.  ‘HHhH’ reminded me of ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ (only HHhH is never tedious).  Both books contain a historical narrative, with the author placed inside it. One is fiction, the other biography.  So is Binet playing with us?  Is his rigorous fact checking, another fiction?  I’m not in any position to check almost any of what he assures me is accurate -so how would I know?  His obsession with revealing the absolute truth, is laudable, and an interesting aside, but it does sometimes dilute the power of the story he is telling.

Ultimately though, HhHH is historical storytelling at its finest. Even without the author telling us, you would know it’s constructed on solid foundations.  It takes a pivotal but overlooked incident of the war, and uses it to examine the rise of the Nazi’s, their inner workings, and their unparalleled atrocities.  He also reveals the small but effective band of brave resistance fighters, who would give their all to overthrow the most heinous of regimes.  The assassination of Heydrich had deep and unexpected consequences, that affected the progress of the war; consequences I was woefully ignorant of.  Binet lays them all bare in a brilliant and readable fashion. ‘HHhH’ is compulsive reading, and should probably be compulsory reading, for all.

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