Haunted by Hitler’s Hangman
The French quasi-novel HHhH, by Laurent Binet, tells the tale of assassinated Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich while wondering whether it need be retold
The inspiration of HHhH is not ironic, then, but deeply earnest. And in this context, the novelist’s power to shape and invent feels less like a privilege than a curse. For every time Binet makes something up, it is a reminder that he doesn’t know all the facts. “My story has as many holes in it as a novel,” he writes, “but in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur.” Thus Binet goes back and forth several times over the question of whether the car Heydrich was riding in when he was assassinated was black or dark green: It’s impossible to tell from black-and-white photographs, yet somehow he has a recollection of seeing a green car in a museum.
More fundamentally, Binet is faced with the problem that the villain of his novel is much better documented than its heroes. “I have a colossal amount of information about Heydrich’s funeral,” he writes, “but that’s too bad, because I don’t really care.” Yet as he acknowledges, the danger in writing about a man as vividly evil as Heydrich is that he will engross any book he appears in—that evil will turn out to be more narratable than good: “Whenever I talk about the book I’m writing, I say, ‘My book on Heydrich.’ But Heydrich is not supposed to be the main character.” The evolution of Binet’s title, however, from “Operation Anthropoid” to HHhH, suggests that he was unable to stop Heydrich from becoming his focus.
Still worse, Binet admits to making outright mistakes. Summarizing Heydrich’s early career as chief of the SD—the intelligence or spy service of the SS—Binet writes: “Having got wind that the head of the British intelligence service calls himself M (yes, like in James Bond), [Heydrich] decides in all seriousness to call himself H.” Five pages later, however, Binet reproaches himself: “I’ve been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination. In fact, the head of the British secret service at the time was called C—not M as in James Bond. Heydrich too called himself C, and not H. But it’s not certain that, in doing so, he wished to copy the British: the initial more probably referred to der Chef.”
The obvious thing to do, in this case, would be for Binet to go back and revise the earlier section, removing his error about the initials. By refusing to do so, by incorporating both the error and its correction, Binet means to dramatize the difference between writing history and writing fiction. History is faithful to the historical truth, but fiction, or whatever genre HHhH belongs to, is faithful to the writer’s truth—which includes his moments of self-deception and error.
Following this logic, Binet suggests that the flaws of HHhH are evidence of the incurable frivolity of fiction. This is the aesthetic frivolity the poet Paul Valéry invoked when he explained that he could never write fiction, because he couldn’t bring himself to write a sentence like “The marquise went out at five o’clock.” Already a hundred years ago, in other words, the conventions of the novel—the observations of class and custom, the illusion of specificity—struck Valéry, and other Modernists, as stultifying and untrue to life. If this is a flaw in an ordinary novel, Binet argues, it is still more problematic in a historical novel, where the vapidity of convention hides crucial truths.
Thus Binet begins one section of HHhH by writing: “Himmler looks like someone’s just smacked him in the face. The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull.” The following section begins this way:
Natacha reads the chapter I’ve just written. When she reaches the second sentence, she exclaims: “What do you mean, ‘The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull’? You’re making it up!” I have been boring her for years with my theories about the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention, and she’s right, I suppose, not to let me get away with this skull thing. I thought I’d decided to avoid this kind of stuff, which has, a priori, no virtue other than giving a bit of color to the story, and which is rather ugly.
The object of Binet’s contempt, it seems, is nothing less than the imagination itself. That is because imagination is a form of mediation—it brings close something that is far from us, giving us the illusion of witness and participation. But when it comes to a historical event, the need for such mediation is a reminder of our distance from the original, of the inauthenticity of our relation to the past. This paradox is why Holocaust fiction has always been such a morally contested subject: To imagine the suffering of the victims is both to assert our solidarity with them and to demonstrate that we are not actually among them.
The Holocaust inevitably forms part of the background in HHhH. One of the scenes Binet dramatizes is a meeting on July 31, 1941, in which Goering, Hitler’s number-two man, officially authorizes Heydrich “to solve the Jewish problem by means of migration or evacuation in the best possible way according to present conditions.” What this meant in practice was, first, mass shootings by the Einsatzgruppen, which killed some 1.5 million Jews in the first year after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.
The more advanced machinery of the death camps was instituted after the infamous Wannsee conference, on Jan. 20, 1942, where Heydrich won the Nazi leadership’s assent to his plan for the annihilation of all 11 million of Europe’s Jews. “It was at Wannsee that the genocide was rubber-stamped,” Binet writes, noting that Heydrich’s list of Jews to be killed included the Jewish population of Britain, Switzerland, and Spain—that is, of countries that were officially neutral or which Germany had not yet defeated. After this meeting, “Heydrich poured himself a brandy, which he sipped while listening to classical music (Schubert, I believe). … According to Eichmann,” who was one of Heydrich’s deputies, “Heydrich was in an excellent mood.”
The Russian immigrant Anna Shteynshleyger, a formerly observant Jew in the contemporary art world, creates lush, melancholy, Edenic works