This is a profoundly troublesome book to review in short order because, for me personally (if you’ll excuse the intuitive knee-jerk redundancy), Laurent Binet’s HHhH assumes the status, or perhaps the infrequent and baffling honour, of being a work of literature I appreciate and recommend, with some qualification, despite a host of initial (and not insubstantial) misgivings I harboured during the reading process. In fact, I would say — without express inhibition — I love this book, but this reaction might be characterised as contradicting my initial evaluation of Binet’s material. In some ways (and for a more explicit context), this is a critical reaction I can only attribute to a few previous instances: I recall enjoying David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but felt that its entire second/middle act should have been excised entirely or revised thoroughly, and I grappled with my increasingly diminishing enthusiasms over Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, if only because I would have designated Murakami’s novel structurally and narratively unsalvageable, if not for the final/third book which somewhat redeemed the systematically flawed entity for me as a whole. What I can express, in framing Binet’s HHhH in this tendentious context, is that it is certainly the best of the three works, and that the authorial issues I encountered upon reading Binet’s book nonetheless retain a verisimilitude with those I reconciled myself to when reading both the Mitchell and the Murakami: in sum, Binet’s work improves itself unequivocally from about the final third on.
There are innumerable comments bestowed in praising Binet’s book, and some appealingly articulate criticism exchanged on the book’s own Goodreads page to challenge and dispute the hagiographic reaction Binet’s work has generated; I therefore don’t feel that it’s a necessarily valuable exercise to replicate these same contentions here, but I do want to identify what for me is problematic about this work, before contributing to the deserved praise it has solicited and received from readers. In both the metatextual device the author implements throughout HHhH with varying degrees of success, and in the English-language interviews he has facilitated online, Binet appears to recurrently assert that the function of fiction is not to transmit the truth or reflect a version of it through aesthetic means, but rather to entertain or provide escapism and stimulate cultural discourse exclusively — and that, if a writer intends to construct a narrative of historically-recorded real-life events, it would be best to neuter the project of fiction altogether: that is, resort only to expressing what is designated as fact. There is, of course, the rhetorical and philosophical disparity that such thinking immediately provokes — are not the facts we receive, too, narratively-determined and catalogued as presupposed by the system of power, the canonising facility, and a historian’s hegemonic impulse? — but I feel the more disconcerting conundrum Binet’s work appears to legitimate, is the notion that if you are to write about history, there are no merits in assembling the powers of fiction to transmit said event.
What, then, is the point of dramatising or narrativising the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in the first place? What, then, is the irreconcilable rationale in choosing to craft the development and repercussions of this event into an artefact of fiction? Why has Binet not simply chosen to adhere rigorously to his own doctrine and reconstruct this profound moment in history by fashioning a sustained journalistic exposé or an essayistic collection of reportage? If Binet invariably believes that history only deserves documentation, why did he not apply the conventions of documentary literature to engage with this history? One answer might be that Binet claims he doesn’t subscribe to the vocabulary of fiction-making, but appears to fail in comprehending that he uses — and reveres — these same tropes of dramatisation despite himself. This is the work of an individual who seeks to convince himself that he is not writing novelistically even while he demonstrates the most enviable talents as a virtuosic storyteller. It is only when he gets out of his own way sufficiently long enough, and dispenses with his distaste for fiction, his Structuralist thesis that facts are imposed and originary and therefore in need of perpetuation, that he begins to compose a masterpiece. The final 70 pages in this book are devastating and glorious and emotionally transformative — even if Binet, himself, won’t assume ownership of the word “novel”, he’s a novelist to watch because his fiction transcends his theory with every keystroke he makes.