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Tuesday, 2 April 2013

HHhH - Laurent Binet - Prix Goncourt de Premier Roman Winner 2010 - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013

The Prix Goncourt Prize is a French literature prize awarded to the author of “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”, I have reviewed the 2008 winner Atiq Rahimi’s “The Patience Stone” and the 2010 winner “The Map and the Territory” by Michel Houllebecq on this blog before. The Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman is the same prize for a debut novel and Laurent Binet won it for “HHhH”. Amazingly a large number of the prize winners are yet to be translated into English (for example the 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2012 winners are yet to appear in English) and Laurent Binet’s work has made it onto the Long List for this year’s, 2013, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which in a way is a feat in itself.

Who is our protagonist here? This novel, although being about two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent from London on a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Nazi secret services and living in Prague, is more than an historical novel. It is also a novel about our novelist struggling with the concept of writing a truly historical novel. Is Binet our protagonist, I would like to think so, or are our hero assassins or even Heydrich our main thread? Personally I hope Binet never stumbles across this review as he did have a tendency to attack certain websites, writers etc. throughout his novel - if he didn't want to be our main character I could be in for it!!

Reinhard Heydrich (the HHhH of our story – “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” in German spells HHhH) is the evil Nazi chief, also commonly known as the “Hangman of Prague”, “the blond beast” and “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich” and our novelist wants to portray an accurate historical novel. How can you remain true to historical fact without making things up?

Natacha flicks through the latest issue of Magazine Litteraire, which she has kindly bought for me. She stops at a review about the life of Bach, the composer. The article begins with a quote from the author: ‘Has there ever been a biographer who did not dream of writing, “Jesus of Nazareth used to lift his left eye-brow when he was thinking”?’ She smiles as she reads this to me.
I don’t immediately grasp the full meaning of the phrase and, faithful to my long-held disgust for realistic novels, I say to myself: Yuk! Then I ask her to pass me the magazine and I reread the sentence. I am forced to admit that I would quite like to possess this kind of detail about Heydrich. Natacha laughs openly; “oh yes, I can just see it: Heydrich used to lift his left eyebrow when he was thinking!’

This novel has no page numbers and is made up of 257 chapters, some of which are only a sentence long (the quote above is chapter 30) and moves from tight action about our parachutist heros to details about Heydrich’s meetings with various Nazi Chiefs and his ultimate “Final Solution” back to Laurent Binet’s struggle with writing an accurate or memorable novel.

The dead are dead, and it makes no difference to them whether I pay homage to their deeds. But for us, the living, it does mean something. Memory is of no use to the remembered, only to those who remember. We build ourselves with memory and console ourselves with memory.

I have read a few reviews of this novel which are highly critical of this writing style, the meta-narrative being frustrating and distract us from “the true story”. I tend to disagree as I see Binet’s struggle with the genre of historical fiction being central to the plot, may that, in itself, be the “true story” – how can somebody write an accurate historical novel without making things up? There are numerous references to other writers including the 2006 Prix Goncourt Winner:

I wonder how Jonathan Littell, in his novel The Kindly Ones, knows that Blobel had an Opel. If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before his superior research. But if it is a bluff, that weakens the whole book. Of course it does! It’s true that the Nazi’s were supplied in bulk by Opel, and so it is perfectly plausible that Blobel possessed, or used, a vehicle of that make. But plausible is not known. I’m drivelling, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.

Personally I learned a lot about a period of World War II history that I didn’t know a lot about, the involvement of the Serbs and the Croats, the exiled Government being housed in London, the assassination attempt on Heydrich and oh so much more. At the same time I entered the mind of a writer who is struggling with his craft, his obsessive research, and his inability to commit to the page, the meanderings and the later notes telling us to forget earlier sections.

To me this novel was a revelation in writing styles and Binet’s commitment to the art. One I thoroughly enjoyed.

This novel is also on the long list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2013 along with:
A Death in the Family – Karl Ove Knausgaard
The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker
The Sound of Things Falling – Juan Gabriel Vasquez
The Last of the Vostyachs – Diego Marani
Cold Sea Stories – Pawel Huelle
The Fall of the Stone City – Ismail Kadare
Black Bazaar – Alain Mabanckou
Bundu – Chris Barnard
Dublinesque – Enrique Vila-Matas
In Praise of Hatred – Khalid Khalifa
The Murder of Halland – Pia Juul
Satantango – Laszlo Krasznahorkai
Silent House – Orhan Pamuk
Traveller of the Century – Andres Neuman
Trieste – Dasa Drndic

The shortlist for this prize will be announced next Thursday 11 April and given I thoroughly enjoyed last year’s shortlist I will attempt to read and review as many of the list as possible before the prize is announced in May.

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Tony said...

I read a magazine piece which claimed that Binet initially intended to write a straighter version of the book - only for 'The Kindly Ones' to come out before he had finished it! Which explains why it's critiqued at times here...

Glad you liked it, but I'm standing by my verdict ;)

Tony Messenger said...

That could be true - as he does give Littell quite a serve in one "chapter", I thought I'd leave that revelation to the readers themselves.

I don't have a concern at all with your verdict, a very valid opinion, Binet as a character didn't unsettle me as much as yourself that's all.

Thanks for your comments they are all welcome here - especially from fellow readers of similar works.

Dennis Zanin said...

I finally got around to reading this and thoroughly enjoyed it. I wish more historical novels were written this way. I found the constant 'commentary' was a strong feature of the novel which allowed the author to emphasise the more important events and facts. I'm sure Binet would have a positive reaction to your review!