Is it insulting to turn a real person into a character in a book?
The nature of historical fiction and the inherent trustworthiness of it is foregrounded in HHhH by Laurent Binet. Mr. Binet wants to tell the story of two men, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, who carried out an assassination attempt on the life of Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the Nazi SS under Himmler and possibly the heir-apparent to Adolph Hitler.
Mr. Binet’s attempt to tell the story of Kubis and Gabcik is undermined by Heydrich, whose crimes slowly takes over the narrative and by Mr. Binet’s own lack of faith in the genre of historical fiction. Why write a novel instead of a history? Why create a fiction instead of telling the truth?
As the story of Heydrich’s rise to power enters an almost pre-destined collision with the story of his assassins, Mr. Binet’s own story, that of writing the novel we are reading attempts to take center stage. Throughout the novel, Mr. Binet discusses the problems, both moral and literary, with writing historical fiction in general and specifically with writing about Reinhard Heydrich and the attempt on his life.
It’s clear that Mr. Binet admires the bravery of Kubis and Gabcik and that he is both appalled and fascinated by Heydrich. He wants to make Heydrich a monster and he wants to keep the assassins alive as long as possible. They know that they are on a suicide mission, that there can be no escape after the attempt on Heydrich’s life whether it succeeds or fails, but Mr. Binet can’t stand the thought of letting them die. As the novel heads towards its inevitable conclusion, he constantly stalls the plot by interjecting discussion about his second theme how to write historical fiction– whether or not he can insert details that he knows are false or isn’t sure are true or if he can invent a character or two.
This is what I think: inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom I’ve discussed all this: It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.
Mr. Binet agonises over his inability to include all of the people who helped with the attempt on Heydrich’s life due to the confines of his narrative. Were he to include everyone who deserves to be mentioned, his book would become unreadably dense.
Through these diversions and asides the author/narrator becomes a character in the book. I began to feel that I was reading the book as it was being written, that Mr. Binet and I were in the same room composing the book’s narrative, discussing which scenes and details should be included as we simultaneously wrote and read the book. At one point he falls to the temptation of including a scene he has made up, but he immediately confesses that he has done so:
That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet–a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him put on two coats, when perhaps he had only one. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself.
None of the actions Mr. Binet mentions above mean much on their own, but they call into question the entire nature of historical fiction. If a series of small details has been invented in order to turn a historical figure into a fully fleshed out literary character, is that character still a historical figure, still Reinhard Heydrich the Nazi mastermind of the Final Solution or has he become simply another literary villain, another Inspector Javert? Of course we also have to ask at what point do the small details step over the line and become simply fiction outright. Alternatively, is Mr. Binet simply having me on. Is he making fun of people who criticize historical fiction for objecting to things that do not really matter? Is his critique of historical fiction or of historical fiction’s critics?
By the closing of the novel, Mr. Binet appears desperate to keep his heroes alive. Although the assassination attempt goes wrong, the two young men manage to escape and go into hiding. The manhunt that follows can only end with their eventual discovery and death, which we both, the novelist and his reader, know. But we both want to keep Kubiš and Gabčík alive as long as possible. Attempting to delay the end of the story, and thereby expand the lives of his characters, the author dates each paragraph, putting one day between each, stretching the hero’s final eight hours into well over a week of time, but the dates are 2008, when the author was writing not when the heroes were living. What does this mean? Did the author write just one paragraph per day because he could not bring himself to write the final one? Is he attempting to prolong their lives through narrative? Can art prolong life? If the author is committed to his preference for truth over invented detail then he cannot prolong the lives of the people in his book, but if he takes the steps needed to make them into characters instead of people can he give them any ending he likes: prolong their lives, let them escape, grant them happiness?
In HHhH, Mr. Binet managed to find a story about the Third Reich that many readers will be unfamiliar with. I knew nothing about Reinhard Heydrich nor the attempt on his life before reading this novel. This made HHhH work for me on the level of a straightforward thriller. What I did not expect to find was so much about the nature of literature and its relationship to historical reality. HHhH is a book about World War II and a book about writing books about World War II. I never would have guessed that the reading about writing a book could be just as exciting as reading about the war itself.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2012. I’ve been slowly, very slowly, migrating all of my old reviews over to this new blog since I started it, several years ago. I was migrating them in order of publication but I skipped a few today because I wanted to find one that would punch back a little bit at what has happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. I found this one that, in spite of all the issues around the nature of historical fiction, shows what monsters the Nazi’s really were. How an American can wave a Nazi flag is simply beyond me. Whether you’re politically right or left is irrelevant, the Nazi’s were one of the worst enemies the United States ever faced. To wave their flag with pride is the act of a traitor, the act of a monster. Reading this book, and others like it, may help demonstrate why. But to be honest, it’s 2017…if you don’t already understand why no American should ever wave a Nazi flag, you’re probably beyond help already.