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HHhH : Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich

July 9, 2012

“HHhH” by Laurent Binet

Reviewed by Keith

(Regarding the book’s unusual title: …everyone in the SS says “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich”, which translates as Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich).

Some of you may be fans of the historical novel, for example the superb Aubrey/Maturin series by the Irish author Patrick O’Brian. I am a fan of this genre too, but when I saw the cover of HHhH, I became wary – I’m a bit ‘Nazi-ed out’ lately.  Did I really want to read another potentially depressing book about this tragic time in history?

But Laurent Binet’s HHhH gripped me from the first page. That said, it’s a challenge to describe this book – non-fiction novel? A novelisation of real events? HHhH is both of these things, and it’s also the author’s intimate record of the writing of his book… two books, brilliantly rolled into one.

HHhH is the story of Reinhard Heydrich, who rose to become a possible successor to Hitler. Along the way, he became known as the Blond Beast, The Most Dangerous Man in the Reich and the Hangman of Prague – the so-called Protector of the Nazi provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, formerly Czechoslovakia. Heydrich was a principal architect of the Final Solution, and one of history’s most reptilian criminals.

HHhH includes the story of two heroic resistance fighters, Jozef Gabèík and Jan Kubiš, a Slovak and a Czech respectively, who sacrificed their lives in an attempt to assassinate Heydrich.

It’s also the story of the author’s exertions in writing his book – the obsessional research, the agonising over imagined dialogue. Binet is a very engaging writer; I found his asides to the reader endearing, sometimes comical, given the deadlyserious subject. For example, here’s Binet’s take on the first meeting between Heydrich and the SS boss:  Heinrich Himmler: “On the one side, the tall blond in black uniform: horsey face, high–pitched voice, well–polished boots. On the other, a little hamster in glasses…”

This book truly blurs the line between life and art…HHhH is completely unlike any historical novel I’ve ever read, and I was captivated from beginning to end. It’s the most original and engrossing WW2-era book I’ve read since Richard Condon’s outstanding “An Infinity Of Mirrors” … I recommend HHhH highly.

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