HHhH and the Postmodern Historical Novel

Written by Sophie Hylands. Edited by Anushka Minshull.

HHhH, Laurent Binet’s 2010 account of the assassination of the SS general Reinhard Heydrich, was emphatically presented to the reading public as a work of fiction, even winning the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, France’s most prestigious award for first novels. Yet from its very first line, ‘Gabčík – that’s his name – really did exist’, the author consciously steps into the story to remind us that the events are real and that the “novel” may not follow normal fictional conventions.

In HHhH Binet uses one of the most well-used tools of the historical fiction arsenal, the present tense, to give his description of Heydrich’s killing and the hunt to find his assassins a sense of immediacy, bringing to mind a thrilling action story. Alongside this, though, runs a counter-narrative, in which Binet draws readers away from the main story to relate the process of writing the book.

Binet’s deconstructionist approach echoes other postmodern novels, which fight against the literary technique of hypotyposis, the vivid description of events to give an impression of reality, in order to prevent the reader feeling that the fictional world they are immersing themselves in is real. Binet’s intense focus on his own role as author in creating the world on the page allows him to untangle the real events he’s describing from the fictional world of the novel and to examine the extent to which authors have to use their imagination to form a coherent narrative from the almost inevitably partial facts of history.

Binet keenly highlights the problems faced by the novelist and the historian alike: what to put in, what to leave out, whether there is such a thing as too much research and where a simple lack of knowledge means imagination has to trump historical fact. There is a refreshing honesty in admissions such as ‘I would like to tell you about their plans, their doubts, their hopes, their fears, their dreams and thoughts. But that isn’t possible, because I know almost nothing about any of it’. Binet articulates the frustrations of having to condense the sprawling edifice of history into a neat narrative package: ‘I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see – growing up all over it – ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy – the unmappable pattern of causality.’

Just how to define HHhH, though, is not always clear. Although, much of the book is made up of Binet directly telling us the facts about the lives and deaths of Heydrich and his assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, placing it largely in the field of non-fiction, this is interspersed with dramatic scenes and imagined dialogues that push it into the territory of the novel. If HHhH is a novel, though, it is one that is constantly undercutting itself, so that a self-consciously literary passage, such as that describing Heydrich travelling to Czechoslovakia – ‘Passing the endless, serpentine line of soldiers marching along the icy road, a convoy of Mercedes cars makes its way laboriously towards Prague’ – is immediately followed by a list of questions that display the cautiousness of the historian rather than the confidence of the novelist: ‘What goes through his [Heydrich’s] mind, when they finally arrive at their destination?’

Jozef Gabčík

Binet is also frequently scathing about novelists, particularly those who use fictional characters to tell factual stories, going as far as to claim that ‘inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence’. He is equally as dismissive of what he calls the ‘vulgar plausibility’ of historical fiction. Yet, his technique of including dramatic scenes only to undermine them later means he can present imagined scenarios, which help to fill in the gaps in his narrative, without ever having to fully commit to them as the traditional historical novelist would.
HHhH’s unconventional structure means that Binet can use moments of pure conjecture in order to offer a lucid and engaging story while also doggedly portraying factual accuracy as a means to get to the “truth” of history. In this sense, the writing process becomes a kind of jigsaw puzzle, in which the facts can be pieced together to present as faithful a picture as possible of Heydrich’s assassination, and allowing us, in Binet’s words, to see the ‘historical reality’ behind the ‘bright and blinding…veneer of fiction’.

Binet writes of his struggle to realistically construct his story but seems to believe that a single coherent and ultimately truthful story exists, outside of his novel, which he just needs to uncover. Binet’s ‘infranovel’, as he terms it, burrows down in order to show its inner workings but doesn’t allow room for the shifting perspectives and overlapping stories that typically mark postmodern views of historiography and which other historical novelists relish. Hilary Mantel, for example, commenting on her own experience of writing historical fiction, depicts the writing of history and history itself as interlinked: “The past is not dead ground, and to traverse it is not a sterile exercise. History is always changing behind us, and the past changes a little every time we retell it.”

Binet is interested in how the writer’s experiences affects their interpretations of history but, unlike Mantel, he doesn’t believe that by writing history he is actively shaping it. Instead, he presents history as distinct from the present and ultimately bigger than him as a writer. With HHhH Binet uses the techniques of the postmodern novel to provide a fresh take on the problems inherent in historical writing, but overlooks the extent to which history is both the past and the story that we tell of it.