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.

The second problem has to do with Binet’s fastidious approach to his story, though it turns out that his self-questioning method is also part of the reason for his success. His subject matter unavoidably raises the question of how we may speak about unspeakable atrocity. The mind can’t easily process the sheer number of those killed in the course of the Second World War. In such carnage, it’s impossible to imagine the totality, the presence, the surfeit of the lives lost. Yet it’s not so much the complexities of writing about extreme cruelty and violence that give Binet pause as an unease about the procedures of fiction as such. In writing about real events, the novelist has to choose between being imaginatively true or true to life, vrai or vraisemblable. Binet lays out the reasoning that leads him to reject ‘poetic truth’ for documented fact. It’s a kind of renunciation, a surrender of the novelist’s licence.

Preoccupied as it is with questions about the relationship between history and representation, the novel seems to begin poorly, as Binet foregrounds himself as a character, the author of the work, setting out his methods and perplexities, his intentions and compunctions. It’s a matter of courtesy for a reader to assume that every narrator is a persona adopted for the occasion. But having read the book, I googled ‘Laurent Binet’ and heard his answer to a question I had hoped would remain unanswerable: as far as Binet is concerned, the narrator really does equal himself, and we must assume that he’s not being ironic when he says ‘no, I’m not a character’ (‘je ne suis pas un personnage’). Instead we hear about his real worries about real rival books, about his real girlfriends, his real communist parents. But then a doubt starts to nag: was he just playing with that interviewer?

Reality outstrips invention. ‘What would be the point of “inventing” Nazism?’ Binet asks, while entangling himself in the constraints of his genre. He will and will not write a historical novel, as if determined to have his cake and eat it. He despises the thriller, resisting the excitements of a story of conspirators and assassins. So why didn’t he just write a monograph? He’s written excellent non-fiction: an autobiographical book about his life as a teacher, and more recently an account of François Hollande’s election campaign.[*] Maybe he resisted a straightforward historical account because the problem of evidence is one of his worries, a problem he addresses by smudging the distinctions between fact and fiction. Yet with a gripping story like this one, it’s not clear at first why he’s tying himself up in knots, writing a novel while claiming to hold himself to a vow of documentary chastity.

The book soon turns out to be cleverer and more intricate than its opening sections suggest. The po-faced narrator grows more and more human, revealed as fallible, or even inept, as he changes his mind, rescinds information, revises the ‘facts’. His story runs away from him; his findings are contradictory; he forgets to bring in a major character; trivial – or maybe crucial – details waylay him. He artfully lays his workings bare. It emerges that far from being too scrupulous to write a novel, he’s driven by a compulsion to fictionalise. In a book about tyranny, he wants to resist the role of the artist as tyrant by undermining his own power and questioning the author’s authority. It’s an impossible stance. His partialities are endearing: the whole book might be taken as a declaration of love for Prague, for a Czechoslovakia that no longer exists. His dislikes – he has it in for the ‘vile’ Neville Chamberlain and is outraged by the cowardice of the Munich agreement – are similarly winning. But beyond the narrator and his reflections stands the incontestable actuality of Gabčik and Kubiš.

The great theme of resistance fiction is failure. Success was impossible; the act of resistance was understood to be at the least a mark of defiance, at the most a preparation for some later triumph. We know what the resisters didn’t: that their enemy would be defeated, though this would be an achievement they wouldn’t share. The war wasn’t won by assassinations and victory wasn’t assured by the small Western European resistance movements. The practical ineffectiveness of rebellion is depicted in many novels and films, from Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin to Michael Verhoeven’s The White Rose. Stauffenberg and the other conspirators of July 1944 understood that their plan to murder Hitler and stage a coup was unlikely to come off. Instead of success, there would be the recorded fact that they had tried. They played for moral stakes, upholding their own decency, the reputation of their country, and perhaps the idea of decency as such. For those of us who don’t know whether we would be collaborators or fighters, the resistance story offers both the tension of narrative and a defence of the virtues of integrity and solidarity.

The quintessential example of the resistance genre is Jean-Pierre Melville’s L’Armée des ombres, based on a novel by Joseph Kessel. In the film we’re not just told that all the characters will die, that they are already ‘shades’ (ombre meaning both ‘shadow’ and ‘ghost’ or ‘shade’); we’re shown the peculiar nature of one of their deaths. A young man, Jean-François Jardie, goes to his end in prison, under a false name, his comrades convinced that he is a quitter and quisling. He does so to help the others, but his selfless act will be unrecognised, lost, with their believing him to be a traitor. Only Jardie knows that he has done the right thing; he goes to perverse lengths to make sure that this will be the case. His act is almost entirely futile: the man he wanted to help dies anyway. He only gains his own torture. He guarantees his integrity to himself (and to the viewer): the story might make us wonder whether such an existential gesture is enough.

Jardie’s anonymous sacrifice raises questions that are central to Binet’s novel. Hannah Arendt returned several times to the Hellenic idea of the ‘shining deed’, an act that would grant a kind of immortality to the otherwise vanishing actor, in a world where only the gods and nature were immortal. Such deeds manifested the noblest aspects of the best people, those few heroes who would be remembered while others lived, died and were forgotten. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt tells the story of Anton Schmidt, a German soldier who helped Jewish partisans. She mentions the notion that resistance against the totalitarian state would invariably be rendered invisible, the good deed punished, the doer left nameless, forgotten – only to refute it: ‘The holes of oblivion do not exist.’ Schmidt’s story shows, like Gabčik’s and Kubiš’s, that even under such a regime, resistance is possible. Retelling their stories does nothing for them, and everything for us. Their actions provide us with an example, an indication of the capacity of human beings to do the right thing.

Yet who remembers that second exterminated village, Ležáky, the ‘Nagasaki to Lidice’s Hiroshima’? Against such forgetting, Binet repeats what Achilles tells us: ‘A ghost desires only one thing: to live again.’ He wishes to summon up the lives of the daring but largely forgotten dead, countering the elitism in the Greek ideal presented by Arendt with a democratic appeal to the courage of common people. In the end you realise that the book’s many digressions are not digressions but signs of an expanding interest, a curiosity and desire to record that keeps trying to draw more and more into the frame. The dead haunt Binet; he hungers for memorials, wishes to let lost deeds shine. But in remembering Gabčik and Kubiš, the facts compel him also to remember Karel Čurda, the conspirator who betrayed them.

The book builds up to three cardinal crises: the moment of the assassination itself; the retribution in Lidice and the rounding up of suspects; and the assault on St Charles Borromeo, the church in central Prague where the conspirators holed up. Narrating these events, which take up the last hundred pages of his novel, Binet is in masterly control of his material. He sets down brilliantly the sheer thrill, the plunge into action, that the assassination represents. The assassination itself exemplifies the contingency and haphazardness of such acts. The two killers finally get to their target – and in the last second, as Gabčik aims, his Sten gun jams and refuses to fire. The killing is botched, but happens anyway: a bomb thrown by Kubiš completes the deed as we knew it somehow would. The assassins are pursued and get away. But not for long: the book moves on at a grim, fateful pace. At dawn, on 10 June 1942, the soldiers will come to Lidice; some weeks later, the assassins will be surrounded in Prague, their deaths assured. Trapped in the church’s crypt, they fight back, yet the end must come. It was always already there, prefigured in the stated facts of the novel’s first few sections. In maintaining a sense that events might still turn out otherwise, Binet pulls off the most difficult trick of the novel of historical reconstruction: we know the end, but grasp that the actors themselves do not, are still there, living through the possibilities of events.

Binet’s novel is a belated entry in a long-standing debate in French literature about the value of violent resistance. In L’Armée des ombres, the Resistance fighters kill only each other, betraying their comrades and taking revenge for the betrayals. They throttle or shoot their former friends so that resistance itself can continue, perpetuating the fact of refusal, while hardly troubling, it seems, the occupying forces. It could easily be argued that Heydrich’s assassination was similarly pointless. A Nazi leader was killed, and another one replaced him; the man who helped plan the Holocaust was murdered, but the Holocaust carried on. In some sense his murder did little more than provide a pretext for the murder of many others. Binet worries that Gabčik and Kubiš, knowing the horror of the Nazis’ vengeance, might have regretted their deed. He writes to reassure the dead that they’re wrong.

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