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Review: HHhH by Laurent Binet

A French literature professor does his damndest to defend history and the bold characters who made it.

HHhH by Laurent Binet
By Matthew Love |
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By Laurent Binet. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26.

This historical fiction book is not, as author Laurent Binet wanted, named after Operation Arthropoid, the real-life secret mission it details. The French literature professor doesn’t know all that much about one of the mission’s heroes, and tracking down indisputable data proved difficult. HHhH is, in fact, fraught with capitulations and frustrations—all of which the author himself painstakingly details. Yet Binet is doing his damnedest to respect historical record and the lives of two bold men who helped turn the tide of opinion in the early days of World War II.

HHhH (an acronym for a German phrase that translates to “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) is the story of two parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, who infiltrated Nazi-occupied Prague in 1942 to kill one of Hitler’s deputies, Reinhard Heydrich. With aid from a network of fellow spies and sympathetic Czech families, Jozef Gab˘cík and Jan Kubi˘s successfully execute a surprise attack that wounds and eventually kills Heydrich. German authorities razed the nearby town of Lidice in retaliation—an act that stunned and infuriated countries around the globe. The heroic men, for their part, were trapped and killed in a church.

If telling the story were that easy, Binet’s book would be 30 pages long. Instead, the author obsesses over minutiae and berates himself for delivering anything less than the truth. It’s a testament to both Binet’s writing and the power of the story itself that this “novel” compels beyond the author’s tormented analysis. But it’s all done to honor these men, the families that helped them and the innocent people who were lost; it’s a debt Binet keenly feels he owes to history, and the reader can’t help but be moved by it too.

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