Laurent Binet, “HHhH” (2010) (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) (read aloud by John Lee) – One thing about the Nazis, is most of them died like punks. Shooting themselves rather than facing justice, sniveling on their way to the gallows in Nuremberg or Jerusalem… Reinhard Heydrich, arguably the coldest, evilest, Nazi-est Nazi of the bunch, died ranting and raving in his hospital bed from a wound that shouldn’t have been fatal – the shitty sten gun they shot at him with didn’t work, he got horsehair upholstery lodged in himself from a mis-thrown grenade, it got infected because his doctors sucked. Fuck him.
Getting ahead of myself, here! This is a sort of meta-historical novel. French writer Laurent Binet talks about how he got fascinated with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, number two man in the SS, man who oversaw the planning of the Holocaust, overlord of what’s now Czechia when the Nazis seized it, one of the few Nazi leaders to even remotely resemble the “Blond Beast” Nietzschean ubermensch type. He got got by two soldiers, a Czech and a Slovak, dropped into the country by the British Special Operations Executive. After weeks on the lam, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were betrayed by a Czech resistance man, and hundreds of SS men tracked them down to a church basement. After a long siege where they shot several Nazis and refused to surrender, the two SOE men killed themselves. Among other acts of retaliation, the Nazis leveled the Czech town of Lidice and murdered all five hundred inhabitants.
It’s a great story! I think Slayer might have written a song about it… both heroic and grim. Binet does not tell it as a straightforward, historical-fiction style narrative, and talks a lot about how he learned about the lives of the people involved, how we would like to present them, how facts compel him to present them, books he read while writing this book, how he felt insecure about Jonathan Littell’s “The Kindly Ones,” a novel of Nazism that won the Prix Goncourt while he was writing it (a novel in French written by an American, to boot!), etc etc.
Meta stuff can go either way. I could see how one might not like it in this story. But I actually think it worked pretty well. “Showing his work” enhanced my appreciation for the story and its details. World War Two is such well-trodden territory, with so many layers of mythology drawn over it, that it can be hard to know what to think of it. Among other things, I see a trend where the smarter, more independent writers and critics kind of steer away from it. I get the impulse, but I think it’s good to not disengage… or maybe the little kid who loved WWII stuff in me simply hasn’t shut up yet. In any event! I thought this was pretty fun. ****’