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On Creating a Groundbreaking Historical Novel

SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhold Heydrich in 1940. Credit: German Federal Archives.

I just hope that, however bright and blinding
the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story,
you will still be able to see through it
to the historical reality that lies behind.

-- Laurent Binet, HHhH

In Prague on May 27, 1942, Slovak factory worker Jozef Gabcik and Czech soldier Jan Kubis attacked and mortally wounded Reinhard Heydrich, the SS Obergruppenführer (equivalent to a full general) and Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia -- a man so ambitious and casually cruel that Hitler called him “The Man with the Iron Heart.”

Before taking on his ill-fated position in Prague, Heydrich had headed the Gestapo, planned the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, and masterminded the Final Solution -- the destruction of European Jewry -- at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942.

A few weeks after Heydrich died, Gabcik and Kubis died in a fierce battle with Nazi troops in the basement of a Prague church. In response to the assassination of Heydrich, Nazi troops leveled the Czech village of Lidice and killed or deported all of its citizens.

French author Laurent Binet focuses on the history of “Operation Anthropoid,” the mission to kill Heydrich, in his groundbreaking new novel HHhH (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) -- a titled derived from the SS quip “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” This groundbreaking debut novel won the prestigious Prix Goncourt de Premier Roman for 2010.

The book is a unique blend of personal memoir, archival research, and gripping storytelling. The narrator, a meticulous fact checker, writes more than a half century after the bloody events he explores. He finds the subject too serious for fiction, too serious to invent dialogue or description or thoughts and feelings. Rather, the story must be true to the historical record. As the story unfolds, the narrator dissects previous books and movies on the incidents, discusses his own personal relationships, and confesses his anguish and uncertainties in telling this complex story while remaining faithful to the facts. And he maintains suspense as he details the mission to kill Heydrich and the brutal Nazi reprisals.

In interviews, Mr. Binet has repeatedly claimed that he is the narrator and that the narrator’s journey is factually accurate. His description of his research and the attempt to piece together a wholly truthful narrative may be as illuminating for historians and journalists as it is for literary writers.

Mr. Binet’s book has been praised for its moving narrative, its “genuine newness,” and its account of an author’s struggle to get to the whole truth of the story of two forgotten heroes and their suicidal mission to eliminate arguably the most dangerous member of Hitler’s cabinet.

In The New York Times, author Alan Riding wrote that HHhH is “a gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened.” Acclaimed novelist David Lodge commented: “Laurent Binet has given a new dimension to the nonfiction novel by weaving his writerly anxieties about the genre into the narrative, but his story is no less compelling for that, and the climax is unforgettable.” And writer Wells Tower called HHhH “an astonishing book -- absorbing, moving, for the agony and acuity with which its author engages the problem of making literary art from unbearable historical fact.”

Laurent Binet teaches French Literature as a professor at the University of Paris III. He is also the author of La vie professionnnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his teaching experience in secondary schools.

Mr. Binet graciously responded from France to a series of questions submitted by email on the crafting of his groundbreaking historical novel.

* * * * *

Robin Lindley: What inspired you to write this book about Hitler’s henchman Reinhard Heydrich, “the Butcher of Prague,” and his assassins, the heroic Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis -- your protagonists?

Laurent Binet: That was actually not my original intention. Initially, I wanted to focus on Operation Anthropoïd and on the assassination of Heydrich in Prague in 1942 because I had heard the story when I was in Slovakia during my military service. But I realized Heydrich’s career was so unbelievable and it gave me a way to retell the entirety of the Third Reich’s history since Heydrich was behind every key moments -- the Night of the Long Knives; Kristallnacht; the Einsatzgruppen; the Final Solution.

For younger Americans who may know little about the events you explore, what are a few facts that would help them understand your main characters and the historical context of “Operation Anthropoid”?

You have only to look at Heydrich’s titles and responsibilities -- head of Gestapo, head of SD (the Nazis secret services), Himmler’s right hand, acting protector of Bohemia-Moravia (nicknamed “the Hangman” or “the Butcher of Prague”), being charged with the execution of the Final Solution by Göring -- to get a sense of his centrality of the events of the Second World War.

You set out to write the story of the two Czech agents who assassinated the brutal Heydrich yet it seems that Heydrich took over the tale you tell.

That happened for a very simple reason: I could collect much more information on Heydrich than I could on the parachutists. As I didn’t want to make up anything, the narrative had to focus more on Heydrich than on them.

Gabcik and Kubis may have been political pawns -- and their mission led to horrific Nazi reprisals. How did you see the role of the Allies and Czech government in exile in the initiation of this mission to kill Heydrich?

Of course it was about politics. But, then again, isn’t it always? In 1942, it was a very important to send the message that the Nazis could be hurt. Until that point, they had looked rather invincible.

The question of the reprisals is always at the heart of any act of resistance. But, if you follow that logic too far, there will never be a way to resist.

The narrator is prominent in HHhH. Does he bear a close resemblance to you?

He is me.

In your book you praise some historical novels and find others lacking such as The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. What do the powerful or successful novels do that Littell failed to do?

Littell’s novel is very classically structured, with no formal innovation whatsoever. Also, I found that his narrator, Max Aue, doesn’t resemble any Nazi who ever existed, at least not any that I have encountered in my research. This is a problem, I think, for a novel that was praised so highly for its historical verisimilitude.

Your novel has been compared to postmodern novels and even memoir and history. If the narrator is stating your experience accurately, isn’t HHhH a nonfiction work? Or is it a “nonfiction novel” in the vein of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year or Capote’s In Cold Blood?

I have no problem with HHhH being thought of as a nonfiction novel. But, what differentiates HHhH from In Cold Blood or Journal of the Plague Year is that it introduces a meta-fictional dimension to the narrative. If I had to compare my book to another work, I would probably compare it to Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus.

A related question: You describe your book as an “infranovel.” What do you mean?

What I mean by that is that while looks like a novel, and uses all the tricks of a novel, it is not actually a novel because it is not fictional.

You are a master of suspense -- the writing is compelling while the reader senses the conclusion from the outset of your book. Were you consciously working to build suspense and how did you do that?

I really wanted to write the action scenes as suspenseful scenes. I found writing a suspenseful scene to be mainly a matter of rhythm and of what you say or don’t say, and when. This is one of those tricks of the novel that I was talking about -- to build suspense, you have to manage the timing of what you tell the reader.

What does HHhH say about how fiction can reveal truth? Isn’t there something more in your book than a “dogmatic devotion to facts”?

This was not a question that I tried to address. For me the real question is this: How do you tell a true story? And, trust me, just trying to answer that question was complicated enough!

What do you think other writers can learn from the way you created and wrote your now acclaimed historical novel?

I don’t know. I mainly seek to ask questions with my writing. I hope that other writers will not think that my questions are silly.

Did you dream of being a writer when you were a boy? Were you also interested in history?

I was always interested in history. My father is a history teacher and my grand father was in a prisoner camp in Germany during the war. I always liked reading. Therefore, why not write?

Do you have another historical book or novel in the works?

In a way, yes. My next book will be a novel, a real fictional one, set during the 1980s.

Thank you for your thoughtful responses Mr. Binet.