HHhH, by Laurent Binet
How can a novel about a historical event avoid embellishing reality? This is the issue raised by Laurent Binet in his book, which tells the story of the murder of a high-ranking Nazi dignitary.
A meteoric career
Laurent Binet is a professor of French in Seine-Saint-Denis and a lecturer at several universities in Paris. Having published a surrealist narrative and an essay, he wrote his first novel, HHhH, in 2010. The stunning success of the book, which received the Prix Goncourt for a first novel, transformed the writer's life. He was then invited to follow François Hollande’s campaign for the 2012 presidential elections, an experience he describes in Nothing Happened as Planned (“Rien ne se passe comme prévu”).
In 2015 Laurent Binet published The Seventh Function of Language (“La Septième Fonction du langage”), a political thriller that received the Prix Interallié and the Fnac Prix du Roman.
HHhH tells the true story of what Laurent Binet describes as “one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history”. In 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, one of the leading figures of the Nazi regime, was sent by Hitler to Prague to quell the Czech Resistance, which was thought to be far too active. Two Czech resistance fighters taking refuge in Britain, Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, were then sent on a mission to murder the Nazi dignitary. This was Operation Anthropoid.
Although it looks like a code name, the title of the novel means: “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich”: “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” – Himmler being the head of the SS.
Not betraying reality
The genesis of HHhH is an integral part of the narration. In the midst of the historical facts, the author shares his questions and especially his desire not to romanticise history.
As he explains from the very first pages, his father, a passionate history enthusiast, was the first person to tell him about Operation Anthropoid. The author's interest in this episode of the Second World War only grew from then on. He conducted his own investigation in Bratislava, Slovakia, devoured the works that describe the subject (in particular Conspiracy, by Frank Pierson, in 2001) to best relate “this story [which] surpasses the most unlikely fictions in its novelistic nature and intensity”.
A global success
HHhH saw immediate success. The book has been published in more than 40 countries and been translated into English, Dutch, German and Estonian. In addition to being nominated in the category of Best Fiction by the National Book Critics Circle Award in the United States, the novel was listed by the New York Times as one of the most notable books of 2012.
The success did not stop there as the book, adapted for the theatre by Laurent Hatat, was brought to the big screen in 2017 in an eponymous film directed by Cédric Jimenez, which featured an international cast.
HHhH has been translated, with the support of the Institut français, into Croatian, Estonian and Romanian.
Through its translation support programmes, the Institut français participates in the global dissemination of French-language literature.