HHhH…Haunted by Heydrich
He’s back again! Reinhard Heydrich is haunting me. I thought I’d left him behind after finishing Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel Prague Fatale which deals with Heydrich’s rule in the Czech capital and his assassination by emigre patriots in 1942. Now the ‘blond beast’ and the ‘most dangerous man in the Third Reich’ has returned.
Heydrich is the principal subject in an original novel by the French writer Laurent Binet entitled intriguingly HHhH – the codeword for one of the architects of the Final Solution AKA the Shoah/Holocaust. But it is hard to classify exactly what the book is: Is it an historical novel about the Czech and Slovakian heroes who parachute out of the sky to rid the world of this Nazi monster; or is it post-modern play acting prose on the wilder shores of French literary pretensiouness?
The reason for the latter concern is that Binet injects himself into the story, fast fowarding in history from German occupied Prague during the Second World War to his own 21st century trips to the Czech Republic as he researches this incredible tale of single minded heroism. The narrative of the real life events played out in 1942 is punctuated by Binet visiting Prague with his girlfriend during which he agonises over how to tell the story of the assassins stalking their quarry and the aftermath of Heydrich’s removal from the earth, puts words into the mouth of dead actors including such grotesques as Hans Frank or questions the validity of his story telling.
Despite Binet’s interventions the author still recreates a moving account of the way the secret plan to strike at the heart of the Nazi terror machine is acted out. The three men who carry out the execution of Heydrich – Gabcik, Kubis and Valcik – are like characters who deserved to be portrayed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Cagney as tough, pugnacious, fanatically brave individuals that refuse to flinch in the face of evil. Alongside four other resistance fighters, following the killing of Heydrich, the trio hold out in a Prague church and manage to hold off 800 SS stormtroopers for 8 eight hours. Four of the patriots are killed in the fire fight with the Germans, another four commit suicide rather than fall into the Gestapo’s hands.
Arguably the greatest acheivement of this novel is that the pace and plot line are not slowed down by the self-reflections of the author. His commentary during which he expresses his doubts and concerns about his story-telling craft are respectful towards the key people in the tale – the Czechoslovak heroes. It is also powerful as a form of historical education with fascinating figures like Colonel Paul Thummel, alias Rene, a German anti-Nazi working inside the Wehrmacht to pass intelligence onto the Allies and the Czech resistance. There are also the Three Kings – senior Czechoslovak officers who organised resistance to Nazi domination and whom Philip Kerr also brings back to life in Prague Fatale.
Several critics including Martin Amis have described Binet’s debut novel as ‘moving’ – it is the most appropriate word to characterise HHhH. The passages about the Nazi revenge wreaked on the Czech town of Lidice are painful to read. The men of Lidice from 15 to 84 are shot dead while the women are transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp while the children are taken to Chelmno where most are later gassed. All this done by SS murderers from Heydrich’s hometown who even kill all the dogs of Lidice and vandalise its cemetery in retaliation for Heydrich’s death.
The attention to detail in this carefully constructed, tautly written novel/history lesson is admirable. Binet has mined deeply into history and archive into the dark black heart of Nazi occupation. The author also mines the anti-historical present. In section 241 of the book Binet notes that an Internet site dedicated to getting young Czechs interested in what happened to Lidice after the Heydrich execution ‘is offering an interactive game, the goal of which is ‘to burn Lidice in the shortest possible time.’ He takes this piece of information from a news report in the French left wing daily ‘Liberation’ on 6 September 2006. To his credit Binet shows but doesn’t tell. He doesn’t need to comment on the crass stupidity, nay tackiness of this end-game. Its inclusion in the narrative, albeit a future echo of amoral post-modernity, says it all.
Yet nothing can diminish Binet’s admiration and love for the men who knew from the outset that they would never return from their historic mission. Nor perhaps were they oblivious to the terror their killing of the ‘Blonde Beast’ would unleash on innocent civilians. It comes out in this rather odd but compelling novel almost despite itself. You are left on finishing it with a tear in the eye, a lump in the throat. And the burning conviction that one of the great movie directors of our time should return to this incredible story and re-tell this tale of courage against all odds on celluloid.