In what is technically a novel, Laurent Binet tells the story of the two Czechoslovakian parachutists (one Czech, one Slovak) who pulled off the most daring assassination of World War II. These two brave men were able to take down one of the most powerful men in Hitler's regime, Reinhard Heydrich. The title, HHhH, comes from a German phrase of the time which translates to "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." At the same time, Binet explores the idea of writing historical fiction, and agonizes about how to honor these two brave souls by telling their story accurately. Amazing! --Sarah B.
HHhH: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich”, or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”. The most dangerous man in Hitler’s cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich was known as the “Butcher of Prague.” He was feared by all and loathed by most. With his cold Aryan features and implacable cruelty, Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, killed him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, and thus changed the course of History.
Who were these men, arguably two of the most discreet heroes of the twentieth century? In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, we follow Jozef Gabćik and Jan Kubiš from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church.
A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and Laurent Binet’s remarkable imagination, HHhH—an international bestseller and winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—is a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing, a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history.
HHhH is one of The New York Times' Notable Books of 2012.
About the Author
Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. He is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. In March 2010, his debut novel, HHhH, won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Laurent Binet is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.
Praise for HHhH…
“A literary tour de force . . . [HHhH] is a gripping novel that brings us closer to history as it really happened.” —Alan Riding, The New York Times Book Review
“[An] extraordinary first novel . . . HHhH, translated from the French by Sam Taylor, charts Heydrich’s rise through the Nazi ranks and Germany’s march to war . . . [to] the training in Britain of the Czech and Slovak assassins, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabcík, who parachuted into the country in December 1941 to kill Heydrich. Ample material for a decent espionage thriller, but Binet, ‘a slave to my scruples,’ makes something altogether less commonplace of it. His fidelity to the historical record, and obsessive urge to analyse those moments where surmise replaces fact, makes HHhH as much about the technical and moral processes of writing a historical novel as it is a historical novel . . . This unusual method results in a literary triumph . . . Using short, punchy chapters, Binet keeps his story haring along. The book’s final section, which recounts the assassination and subsequent manhunt in minute detail, is a masterpiece of tension, and its closing pages are extremely moving. Very few page-turners come as smart and original as this.” —Chris Power, The Times (London)
“Captivating . . . [HHhH] has a vitality very different from that of most historical fiction.” —James Wood, The New Yorker
“[Binet] knows how to wrangle powerful moments from history.” —Susannah Meadows, The New York Times
“[HHhH is] a marvelous, charming, engaging novel.” —Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
“Every now and then a piece of work comes along that undermines the assumptions upon which all previous works have been built . . . These pieces of art complicate the genre for everyone that follows. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius did it for the memoir, Reservoir Dogs for action films, and now HHhH does it for the historical novel. Laurent Binet’s brilliantly translated debut deconstructs the process of fiction writing in the face of the brute reality of facts . . . Binet’s [HHhH] resets the path of the historical novel. He has a bright, bright future.” —David Annand, The Telegraph
“One of the best and most original new novels I’ve read in years.” —Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Ingenious and inventive . . . HHhH [is a] knockout blow in the boxing match of genre-defying literature. Binet steps between styles with ease . . . [and] has written a tale of Heydrich to defy most academic study. Moreover, Binet has managed to engage. His description is playful and joyous, at times even wrongfully celebratory, but always, always surprisingly on form. As a deserving winner of the Prix Goncourt, HHhH is a fantastic read. As a dynamic assault on the genres of contemporary writing, HHhH must join that coterie of celebrated titles: it is unique.” —Charles J. Haynes, California Literary Review
“An impressive debut . . . HHhH is fascinating not only because of the subject matter, but also because of the immense amount of detail Binet includes. The book transports and enraptures. It also impresses upon the reader the legacy of that history. His reflections on how to write the book with thoroughness and integrity and the effect of the project on his life are examples of how important the subject and the consequences of the history are to him. Heydrich’s life is not as documented as those of other high ranking Nazi officers. By researching and publishing HHhH, Binet reminds the reader that history has myriads of layers, but that they are all relevant in our contemporary world.” —Ashley McNelis, Bomb
“[HHhH is] quirky, clever . . . Binet makes a very perceptive and informed recording angel, one with an exceptionally clear and unfussy prose style (rendered extremely well by the translator, Sam Taylor). It doesn’t hurt that he has triple-A premium material, but Binet doesn’t push too hard to give the events a meaning. He lets them be the tragedy that they are, and as such they’re devastating.” —Lev Grossman, Time.com
“[HHhH] is as much a meditation on fictionalizing history—on factual truth versus a more expansive definition of truth, on the obligations and the agendas of writers—as it is a story about an assassination . . . Binet accomplishes something paradoxical. By clinging to the historical record and a very strict definition of truth, he transcends the barest facts and creates a work with its own heft and depth . . . [He] has produced the only essential piece of World War II fiction in years.” —Jessica Crispin, Barnes & Noble Review
“[HHhH] is utterly compelling and ruthlessly fascinating.” —Laurence Mackin, Irish Times
“A breezily charming novel, with a thrilling story that also happens to be true, by a gifted young author . . . [Binet] marshals and deploys his materials with exceptional dramatic skill . . . By the time you reach the book’s devastating finale, it’s this discreet storytelling mastery . . . that leaves the deepest impression.” —James Lasdun, The Guardian
“A cracking book . . . With its double-narrative and its authorial playfulness, HHhH reads in places like a stylistic homage to WG Sebald or Italo Calvino.” —Ruadhán MacCormaic, Irish Times
“That HHhH is so devastatingly brilliant is testament to both its originality and ambition. In fact, it would not be going too far to say it is a modern masterpiece.” —Rob Minshull, ABC (Brisbane)
“HHhH triumphs precisely because it not only delicately, and sometimes grippingly, depicts a major historical moment, but because it manages to depict the unique challenges of 21st-century remembrance.” —Michael Lapointe, The Globe and Mail
“HHhH is brilliant.” —Michel Basilières, The Toronto Star
“[A] remarkable first novel . . . Binet has created a rare thing: a book that tells us stories, mixing scholarship with suspense, while simultaneously laying bare and critiquing the book's construction. It's a difficult approach, which makes the enjoyment of reading it all the more striking.” —Matthew Tiffany, Plain-Dealer (Cleveland)
“There are not enough books that blend the profound and the entertaining. This is one and it comes in a sparkling translation by novelist Sam Taylor.” —John Gardner, New Zealand Herald
“An extraordinary first novel . . . A literary triumph . . . The books final section, which recounts the assassination and subsequent manhunt in minute detail, is a masterpiece of tension, and its closing pages are extremely moving. Very few page-turners come as smart and original as this.” —The Times (London)
“This is mesmeric stuff; history brought to chilling, potent life.” —Leyla Senai, The Independent
“I really don’t know how to praise this book further than to say that it changed my conception of the possibilities of literature. I cannot recommend this book more highly than saying, despite the cliche, that it is an actual must-read, both for its important content, but as importantly, for its avant-garde nature as it pushes forward the boundaries of historical fiction. (From a different lens, it represents the avant garde of teaching history. I can’t imagine anyone who would read this book and consequently not feel interested in the essential questions of historiography i.e. what can we truly know about history.) Go out, find this book, devour it, and prepare to find yourself changed, in ways you could not expect.” —Joe Winkler, Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“A brilliantly profound debut about the assassination of the architect of the Holocaust . . . I found myself turning pages faster and faster while I read about the two men who parachuted into the countryside and slowly closed in on Heydrich, even though I knew exactly what was about to happen. Maybe you can’t write a successful novel about the Holocaust. But, turns out, you can write a wonderful book—let’s call it a novel—about the impossibility of writing about the Holocaust.” —Malcolm Jones, The Daily Beast
“Riveting . . . [HHhH is] exuberant and breathless and wonderful throughout.” —Weston Cutter, Kenyon Review
“HHhH blew me away. Binet’s style fuses it all together: a neutral, journalistic honesty sustained with a fiction writer’s zeal and story-telling instincts. It’s one of the best historical novels I’ve ever come across.” —Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero
“HHhH is a highly original piece of work, at once charming, moving, and gripping.” —Martin Amis, author of The Pregnant Widow
“A wonderful, ambitious book, and a triumph of translation.” —Colum McCann, National Book Award-winning author of Let the Great World Spin
“HHhH is 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.” —Wells Tower, author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
“A work of absolute originality.” —Claude Lanzmann
“By the time I got to the last page of Binet’s masterpiece, I had to close my eyes and rethink history. I’m rethinking it still.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
“Laurent Binet has given a new dimension to the non-fiction 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.” —David Lodge, Booker Prize-winning author of Small World and Nice Work
“HHhH offers something all too rare in contemporary literature: the excitement of encountering something that feels genuinely new. Laurent Binet has thrown all the rules of authorial decorum out the window, and the result is a historical novel of the Czech resistance to the Nazis that is a playful, suspenseful delight.” —John Wray, author of Lowboy
“Read HHhH and be hooked, horrified, haunted, and (h)enthralled.” —Bernard Pivot, JDD
“[A] tour de force . . . Gripping . . . Binet demonstrates without a doubt that a self-aware, cerebral structure can be deployed in the service of a gripping historical read. [HHhH is] a perfect fusion of action and the avante-garde that deserves a place as a great WWII novel.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The story of how two Czech agents—recruited by the British secret service—assassinated Hitler’s ruthless lieutenant Reinhard Heydrich in broad daylight on a Prague street in 1942 has been told by the historian. Now it is the novelist’s turn. And what a turn Binet delivers! Weaving together historical fact, fictional narrative, and authorial reflection in what he labels an infranovel, Binet gives readers a close-up look at the metamorphosis of documentary truth into literary art. It is an art that makes disturbingly real the cold cruelty of a Nazi titan intent on slaughtering innocent Jews and makes inspiringly luminous the courage of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš, the men who kill him. But it is also a curiously hybrid art that foregrounds the creative artist’s own struggle to wrest meaning out of his anarchic material. Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in Binet’s handling of the bizarre climax of his chronicle, when Gabcik stares down Heydrich’s car, only to have his gun jam, forcing Kubiš to lob a bomb, leaving the wounded Nazi leader to die days later of an infection. Readers will recognize why this brilliant work won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman—and why an English translation was imperative!” —Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)
“[HHhH is a] soul-stirring work . . . The account of the assassination attempt and its nail-biting aftermath is brilliantly suspenseful . . . Binet deserves great kudos for retrieving this fateful, half-forgotten episode, spotlighting Nazi infamy, celebrating its resisters, and delivering the whole with panache.” —Kirkus (starred review)