HHhH, a remarkable new historical novel by a young French author named Laurent Binet, has been getting a lot of attention. The book, a sly and woolly ponderance of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovokia during World War II, is as good as all the hype suggests.
What makes HHhH stand out is the author’s approach to his historical plot. Years ago, before he became a published author, he lived and taught in Slovokia and became possessed by the legend of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination in Prague in 1942. He wanted to write a fictional treatment of the event, but he dreaded the banal literary conventions he’d have to grapple with if he wrote a classic work of historical fiction. He also felt overwhelmed by the moral gravity of the terrible story he wanted to tell, and he feared fumbling the fine line between truth and fiction.
So, to make his book possible, he opened up the toolkit known as metafiction. He wrote the story of himself writing this book, interweaving historical scenes with humorous skits about himself as bumbling author. The result is something like the history equivalent of Nicholson Baker’s comically self-referential study of John Updike, U and I.
This background of this book’s story is an immensely dark one: the humiliation and terrorization of Czechoslovakia after the Third Reich reclaimed the entire Czech portion of the country as German land, decreeing a state of slavery for the native population. The Obergrupperfuhrer of the occupied territory was Heydrich, a famous politician. who was particularly vile, cold and ambitious even among his terrible cohorts, who built his command center in the same Prague castle that had previously inspired Franz Kafka’s great The Castle (though, surprisingly, Binet fails to remark upon this fact) and who was considered to have special potential among top Nazi brass for one reason: unlike Hitler, Goring, Himmler, Goebbels and Hess, he actually embodied the racial physical image of a tall, slender, blond Aryan German. Heydrich is the villain of HHhH, of course, and the heroes are two young resistance fighters, one Czech and one Slovokian: Jan Kubis and Jozef Gubcik. They succeed in killing Heydrich, though the reprisals are terrible, and the resistance fighters eventually die in a bizarre shootout amidst the tombs and towers of an ancient Catholic Church.
Since HHhH made Laurent Binet into a sensation, some dissenting voices have spoken up, pointing out the author’s mediocre literary chops as well as the novel’s flaws of translation. James Woods of the New Yorker also seems to want to dampen the excitement, though he clearly likes the book. Many seem to be put off by Laurence Binet’s clever-clever attitude, and these critics are correct that there is nothing really new or groundbreaking in the metafictional tricks he uses to gin up this story.
But I don’t think postmodern literary techniques need to be groundbreaking every time they are used; this would turn literary postmodernism into a creature that would eat itself to death (as some critics may think it has already done, and others wish it finally would). Rather, we should look for particularly apt or effective use of postmodern techniques, and I can hardly think of a better example of apt use than this one. In fact, the story of Heydrich’s assassination and Kubis and Gubcik’s heroism could not likely have been turned into a successful literary work in any other way than this.
As a straight work of historical fiction, the novel would turn churlish and grotesque. The villains and heroes are too comic-book, and the climactic scenes seem too phony, even though (incredibly) the facts are all real. Laurent Binet’s choice of a self-conscious narrative framing device is like a skillful bartender’s choice of the perfect mixer to offset a strong and unpalatable potion. The combination makes the harsh drink go down.
For Laurent Binet, metafiction offers an opportunity for strategic misdirection, for necessary dissemblance. HHhH is a novel that overcomes the problem of the essential unreality of history. This is where Laurent Binet has actually managed to find something new and groundbreaking to do.
We all sometimes struggle with the feeling that history is unreal, and it takes a rare book to smash through this protective veneer. The toughest challenge Laurent Binet faces in writing the story of Prague in 1942 is to avoid creating cliche. For all its moments of moral horror and beatific suffering, HHhH is a thriller, an action movie. This is the problem Binet is up against, because the story wants to be told, but Binet is disgusted at himself for telling it. He feels guilty for getting caught up in the drama, and for not suffering anywhere near as much as the people he’s writing about. He knows that we readers feel funny about this too. By employing whatever postmodern devices he needs to break through this moral jam, Binet emerges victorious over the crushing weight of his material. That’s a victory every struggling writer ought to appreciate. This is a novel designed to apologize in advance for being as exciting as it’s about to be. That’s metafiction.