In his award-winning debut, Binet tells a story that has been recounted many times before: the assassination of uber-Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942 and the fate of his British-trained assassins, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis.
One of the most able and ambitious Nazis – the title, HHhH, is a German acronym for "Himmler's brain is named Heydrich" – Heydrich was instrumental in planning the Final Solution and rejoiced in the nickname "the hangman of Prague".
As a Parisian who loves Prague, Binet felt compelled to write their story. But he was beset by doubts about how to write historical fiction without trivialising it, or cheapening the lives of men who willingly undertook suicide missions. And so he wrote himself into the story, providing a running commentary on his authorial decisions, criticising other writers who have covered the same events and agonising over whether to invent a conversation or leave a scene out entirely.
Loading article content
An author putting himself centre stage may seem misjudged when a story of this gravity is being told, but it is a counter-intuitive idea that works. Binet dreads the inevitable outcome, the conclusion that this inexorable ballet reached decades before he was even born, and puts off writing the climactic chapters as though he could somehow prevent it from having happened.
In abdicating the role of the detached historian, he hasn't simply taken the obvious alternative path – using his source material as the basis for a tense, emotive, historical thriller – but has refused to compartmentalise it as one thing or another, opening up the way for a shared emotional response that can catch the reader unawares.
Half a century ago, we knew what evil was. But history moves on, tyrants rise and fall, new atrocities take place, memories fade. With its slightly skewed perspective and the relative freshness of its approach, HHhH compels us once again to consider that this, surely, was humanity's lowest point: a war waged, not against those who thwarted Germany's territorial ambitions, but against all that was good and decent in the human soul. In so doing, it confounds those who would decry post-modernism as wilfully obscure, relativistic and lacking in conviction.
Laurent Binet, Vintage, £8.99