19 February 2013

Tournament of Books '13: HHhH

In an alternate history, Nazi commandant Reinhard Heydrich would have stood trial at Nurenberg along with Goring, Hess, von Ribbentrop and all their friends. Hey, since he was one of Hitler's favorites because of his work domesticating the protectorate of Czechoslovakia, directing the SS to give them practically unrestricted powers and organizing the famous 1936 Olympics, he might even have been in the bunker with him and never have had to face trial.

But all of that never happened because Heydrich, the "Blond Beast," was assassinated in 1942 in Prague by a conspiracy backed by the Czech government in exile.

These types of historical switchbacks boggle the mind of the unnamed narrator of HHhH, who is researching an account of the two parachutists, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, who were charged with killing Heydrich. The author wants to write a nonfiction account but seems baffled by how to do it when so much must either be left out or invented. His accounts are riddled with his doubts about how much license to take to fill in the gaps left by his research; in some instances he composes dialogue or entire scenes between some of the players in this saga, including the Czechs who sheltered Gabčík and Kubiš on their way to their destinies, and then writes "I think I should take that out." Because we don't know how the two assassins met, he ponders reconstructing it: "How and when did they meet? In Poland? In France? During the journey between the two? Or later, in England? That's what I would love to know. I'm not sure yet if I'm going to 'visualize' (that is, invent!) this meeting or not. If I do, it will be the clinching proof that fiction does not respect anything."

There are a number of references to other accounts of the Heydrich assassination as well as some knocks at Jonathan Littell's THE KINDLY ONES, a famous recent World War II-era book I sadly have not read, but of which this author holds a very low opinion. Even the title is a coded reference to what the SS (supposedly?) used to say about Heydrich, "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" -- "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich," which definitely amplifies the space left by his death (although we do not verge that far into alternate history here). Not much is revealed about our narrator, aside from the fact that he was born in Paris but considers Prague his true home, but he clearly feels caught in the gap between the freedom to fictionalize and the duty, or burden, of being true to this story no matter how fragmented the resulting account.

I thought this book was terrific and, when I was reading it, I was completely sucked in. Between sessions I found it difficult to re-enter the story because its choppy mini-chapters interrupted the flow -- purposefully, and I think with good cause. (Also, my life is insanity right now so it's possible I did not have my usual laser focus of attention to devote to reading this book. My inbox is fuller than Hilary Mantel's hatemail filter right now. [Don't forget, only the tabloids are allowed to say anything negative about Princess Catherine! If anyone else does it, it's treason!]) I love a good postmodern game, and beyond that I was really fascinated by the inner workings of the Nazi party and the way Heydrich schemed into view after the inauspicious start of being fired from the Navy. (There were ladies involved.)

I was reminded in reading it of some of the controversies of this year's Best Picture Oscar race, in which a number of films have run into trouble for playing fast and loose with the facts. "Zero Dark Thirty" has been accused of this, its fact-checking made doubly difficult by the amount of classified information at play. Both "Lincoln" and "Argo" altered climactic scenes in the service of, well, Hollywood or something (without spoilers, one makes a few men look worse than they were, the other makes one man look better). Maybe it's true as Binet's narrator says that fiction does not respect any of the real-life players in these amazing true stories, and it's not right to excuse people for telling tales. But it's something we all do, and know that we do, and may not be able to escape. I don't know whether this narrator even did Heydrich justice in the end; perhaps I'll have to do some more reading.


Marjorie said...

I'm baffled by the characterization of Mantel's piece (in the article you link here) as an "attack" or a "slam" on Kate Middleton. The essay was not remotely personal; it doesn't presume to know anything about the princess' private life; it has everything to do with the way royals, particularly feminine ones, are gawked at, and the myths that are built around them. And it's a very elegant piece of writing.

Ellen said...

Also, that part of her piece was about 13 percent of what she had prepared and was by no stretch of the imagination her main point. But

I don't know why it's so wrong to say that in Britain, princesses just can't win. Remember when they called her "Waity Katie" because she kept a squeaky-clean profile and seemed to be angling for Will after they broke up?

Marjorie said...

Too true. If Kate continues to do as well in the public eye as she's been doing (and keeps that up for her entire life), she'll have accomplished something that no woman marrying into that line of succession has done since...the Queen Mother, maybe.

More to the point, thank you for this post. I'd heard about this book, but your review makes it sound much more relevant to my interests than I'd previously realized.