What a Ghost Wants

Michael Newton

  • HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor
    Harvill Secker, 336 pp, £16.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 84655 479 7

Laurent Binet has written an excellent novel about the absurdity of writing any kind of novel at all. HHhH retells the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust, by two Czech special agents, Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš, their subsequent deaths and the terrible retaliation enacted by the Nazis on the Czech people, which culminated in the massacre of all the inhabitants of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky. The first difficulty the reader runs up against is the book’s title. At first, I wondered if the four hs were an aspirated sigh or a last breath. In fact, it’s an in-joke. The English reader has to wait until nearly halfway through the story for the explanation, though the French paperback jacket gives the game away. The title is an SS abbreviation: ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,’ or ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,’ a mutinous but accurate allusion to Himmler not being the brightest spark. It’s also, in German, a rather poor gag: ‘HHhH’ reads as ‘Ha ha ha ha’, the kind of mocking and mirthless laughter that one expects from torturers.

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[*] Jeremy Harding wrote about Binet’s book on Hollande, Rien ne se passe comme prévu, in the LRB of 13 September.