Sunday, July 15, 2012

HHhH by Laurent Binet

History demands a great deal from those who study it, and even more from those who don't.

Historical fiction, though, serves two purposes - it informs us about the things history can only hint at - the ambitions, the motivations, the petty humanity that drive events forward. It also allows author and reader to experience events we may or may not know as they happened the first time, with only a shared wink that these things matter enough to be told and retold, shaped and reshaped. We live our lives moment to moment, not knowing what decisions will bring, nor whether any given day could be our last. But no one in history is any different, and our advantage in the present over those in the past is that we at least know, in part, how their stories panned out.

But Laurent Binet's "HHhH" is a house divided against itself - a historical novel that tells a story even as it tries not to, a story about a story that tries not to be a story. It is a story about an event as much as a story about how we tell stories.

Binet did not go too far into the past to begin his laboratory experiment in yarn spinning. He chooses the career and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the "Butcher of Prague," the SS executioner who was Heinrich Himmler's lieutenant. This is where the enigmatic title comes from - the initials for a German expression meaning "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." World War II, as we have seen in several works I've examined, is a gold mine for the contemporary novelist concerned with humanity, both base and glorious.

But our author here isn't interested in a rollicking spy story, or of its heroes. The two men who killed Heydrich - Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis - do not begin to appear fully until nearly 100 pages into this book, and this event is presumably what the plot builds toward. Binet announces on page four his resolution, as he attempts to set a scene with one of his "characters:"

"I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? I don't want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind."

Reading this, I was reminded of John Updike's objection to one of my favorite novels, E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," which blended historical figures with invented characters. Updike felt there was something obscene in digging up long dead people to perform for the author and the audience, doing and saying things they either couldn't have thought or might not have done in real life. But this sort of thing has been going on as long as mankind has been telling itself stories.

So Binet has announced for himself a grand aim - to tell a story on the nature of storytelling using this particular story. Its real characters - the ones in the present - are presumably himself and the woman Natacha, to whom he is giving his pages. She will often chide him that he is "making up" this or that detail. He also reexamines previous tellings of this story, comparing them with his own. The narrator suspends action for his own pronouncements, or observations, freezing in time these heroes and villains before pushing "play" once again for our amusement.

I'm not sure this works, frankly. This novel and its author seem very satisfied with themselves at times, so that even when the author frets that he is missing this or that important detail, we don't think he's sweating all that much. And whatever observations the author brings to the drama don't strike us as being all that revelatory about the story or storytelling. No, the point is what we know about the author. This pose isn't all that new or revolutionary, by the way. The teller of the tale is supposed to be important because his success or failure at telling the story matters. Why else would we care to remember, millenia later, that the poet who sang of Achilles and Odysseus might have been blind?

By choosing this particular tale, Binet allows himself the ability to invoke the Nazis' handsome death angel without giving us a sense of who the man was. He has no more depth than the Nazi henchmen who populate the Indiana Jones movies. He's there, but it isn't in our minds anymore than through a photograph. He is there simply to be a bogeyman. We are supposed to feel against him, or for him, based solely on Binet's sometimes dry recitation of a few pertinent facts.

Ah, you might say, that's the point of the story! If he "dramatized" the action, he would be making it up! By giving us the postmodern distance of an ironic reimagining of the novel, by the author fussing or not fussing over what color somebody's shirt might have been, we instead get something "truer."

Baloney. Even as Binet eschews sentences allowing his characters to "check their watches" to set a scene, he is still making something just as artificial. He is creating a character even by not doing so, and so doing, doing it badly. Like it or not, this is the story he has chosen. If it deserves our attention, it isn't necessarily because of the selfless bravery or, if you will, absurdity of our two assassins - it's because the author decided to tell the story. The right author can make a story with Nazis, no Nazis, a murder, no murders, six million murders, worth reading.

Another example, from later in the novel, when Natacha reads in Magazine litteraire:

"Has there ever been a biographer who did not dream of writing, 'Jesus of Nazareth used to lift his left eyebrow when he was thinking?"...I don't immediately grasp the full meaning of the phrase and, faithful to my long-held disgust for realistic novels, I say to myself: Yuck! Then I ask her to pass me the magazine and I reread the sentence. I am foreced to admit that I would quite like to possess this kind of detail about Heydrich..."

Binet invokes Jesus, for whom the only solid biographical information comes from the Gospels, which are persuasive texts written to express theological mysteries and not the inner life of a man who proclaimed Himself divine. So in reading that story, we might find ourself wanting the kind of detail we don't get in biographies, but in novels. What did His face look like? What did His voice sound like? What did He feel, weeping at Lazarus' tomb?

In Binet's theory, one simply can't make up that sort of detail, even the lifting of an eyebrow, in a novel without it being a cheap lie. So in reading this, I'm tempted to think that "HHhH" isn't an exercise in theory, or a failure of the author's imagination. It's a pose, and the worst kind really, because it appears like nothing else so much as ... a pose.

But to say all that isn't to say that "HHhH" isn't worth reading - it is. My objection, then, is that Binet fails in his ambition to write a novel of ideas because the ideas he animates this novel with, frankly, aren't all that interesting. We know when we read a book that we aren't reliving the events. If we were unable to tell the difference, most of us would succumb to heart attacks before we aimed our weapons, destined to jam, at the executioner's oncoming car. And perhaps there is something vulgar in reanimating the dead for the sole purpose of entertaining the living.

But this isn't so much a manifesto against the artifice of storytelling as much as what it claims not to be - an entertainment designed to enlist the past at a comfortable mental distance. The strategy is just different, and all too familiar. One still hears the wheels we are supposed to ignore, and senses the dripping features of the waxworks figure.

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