HHhH, by Laurent Binet
I came to Laurent Binet’s book about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich late; it was published in 2012 in English, and attracted largely positive attention then. It takes up the true story of a British-aided 1942 mission by the Beneš government-in-exile to kill Heydrich, then Hitler’s satrap in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia as well as SS-leader Heinrich Himmler’s number two (Binet’s book says the title comes from the phrase, Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich: Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). Binet manages remarkably to make the book both a well told thriller and an extended mediation on the writer’s relation to history and the fiction he is making of it.
Together with some other British-trained Czechoslovak commandos on other missions, two assassins – Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík; a Czech and a Slovak – parachuted from a Halifax into a field near Prague, made contact with the resistance, and eventually ambushed and waylaid Heydrich’s Mercedes. Gabčík faced down the car with a Sten gun, which jammed and failed to fire. Kubiš charged from the rear with a grenade, which went off near the car’s rear wheel, driving fragments of the vehicle into Heydrich’s body. The assassins fled. Heydrich tried to shoot Gabčík, then collapsed. Taken to a hospital, Heydrich received good treatment but afterward died of an infection. Hitler and the Nazi high command gave him a martyr’s funeral. On the strength of a spurious connection, the Germans destroyed the city of Lidice, killing its inhabitants, razing it to the ground, and salting the earth. They also named an expanded program for carrying out the Final Solution (of which Heydrich had been a principal engineer) “Aktion Reinhard”. With the help of a parachutist who decided to betray his fellows, the Germans discovered Kubiš and Gabčík, together with a number of their colleagues, holed up in a Church and, over many blundering and violent hours, eventually smoked, flooded, and blasted them out of hiding; the commandos died rather than suffer capture.
I discuss the episode in my course on World War II because I think it is an important moment in the history of the Holocaust, and in the history of how the Western allies understood the Nazis – the razing of Lidice made plain their brutality and provided a concrete cause at a time when the scale of the Final Solution was still only rumor. I think also it illustrates the effect, if not the effectiveness, of the kind of covert operation we cover more often in fiction than in history. (I also talk about the Allied-sponsored murder of the Vichyite admiral who decided to assist the US and UK in their invasion of Africa, Jean Darlan, to make way for Charles de Gaulle.)
It is also a fantastic story, which is of course Binet’s concern. The two young men who decided to join the resistance – itself a risky act – accepting a surely suicidal mission on behalf of a country, Czechoslovakia, that scarcely existed, whose government consisted of a modest office in London, and which would (we know, as they didn’t) not be able to hold itself together. Perhaps they were not striking for, perhaps they were striking against; it was easier then to know that the likes of Heydrich needed stopping. It is of course a tendency now for intelligent readers of the Second World War now to emphasize the brutality and failings of the Allies, to note that the victory was won through moral compromise. HHhH doesn’t reflect this sense; to Binet the Czech resisters are clearly heroes.
To really like this book, as I did, you must accept, if not enjoy, Binet’s insertion of himself as character. He is an unreliable narrator, he wants you to know. He relates a scene, then says, how can I know any of what went on in that scene? I cannot: I will cut the scene, he resolves. Of course, if there is a version of HHhH from which that scene has been cut, it is not the one you are reading. He tells you something, then tells you he has made it up. He says he does not know something, then a page later tells you he has looked it up. At the climactic moment of the shooting, he slows down the narrative by inserting, every few sentences, the dates of his present moment, in 2008 – as if he were writing three or four lines a day, not wanting the moment quite to arrive. With all these devices, Binet is taking the reader along with him in the process of excavating the story; he is reenacting the process of learning and relating history. He hates what novelists do to history; he is writing an infranovel – which he doesn’t define. The writing of the history, the obsession with the story, has a palpable cost on Binet, or anyway on Binet-as-character.
Dead Lions, by Mick Herron
Within MI5 there is a group of disgraced agents who, for whatever reasons, cannot be sacked outright, and are instead assigned to dull desk work in the hope they will resign. Led by fat, old, shrewd Jackson Lamb, they make up a televisually appealing group including various races, genders, classes, nationalities, and sexualities. When an old hand from the Cold War dies mysteriously, they stumble to life, each member ultimately learning to contribute his or her own skill to the success of what, under pressure, becomes a team. They foil the dastardly plot, which is even more diabolical than at first it appears. One suspects Herron understands the reader must feel that disaster can actually happen, which is probably why the Shard appears here as the Needle; we know the Shard is safe, but the fictional Needle, well.
If the group of internal exiles reminds you a bit of George Smiley’s people – if Lamb’s visit to his old love interest with the encyclopedic memory reminds you of Smiley’s trips to see Connie Sachs – well, shame on you: that was MI6, not MI5. To the extent Herron shares Le Carré’s skepticism about the secret services, it is only that he also looks askance at the dire new generation of bureaucrats and bean counters who run the things; he does not evidently worry about the moral import or consequence of the mission they’re on.
If that sounds like a critique, well, it’s not much of one. Boy is this a ripping yarn and a pleasure to read, with some clever turns of phrase and juxtapositions of image, and I am assuredly looking forward to the next one.