For the most part I can’t stand books about shit from history. It’s not time’s fault, it’s mine.
For the most part I can’t stand books about shit from history. It’s not time’s fault, it’s mine: I have a horrible memory and names and dates for the most part mean absolutely nothing to me more than what little sticks in my fat head. I hate that I can’t remember simple things that everyone is supposed to know and that I might have known in third grade but couldn’t answer now if I was being paid, so when I try to read things based on real things I usually end up having nothing by the end. It all just falls back out, as most often the writing in these kinds of books is less compelling in itself, and more it’s just the ideas you’re supposed to retain.
Which is why when a book that deals with history or leagues of information is actually able to maintain my attention for more than a couple dozen pages, I’m always particularly impressed. Those that go beyond, those in which not only is subject matter fascinating and well handled, but also part of a larger mechanism in the book, transcends “historical fiction.” I’m always like, Wow how the fuck did they just do that? In recent years I can think of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke and John D’Agata’s About a Mountain and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song as great examples. Another now is the soon-to-be released and compellingly titled HHhH, a historical novel by Laurent Binet, which translated from the French Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich stands for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”
The story at hand is ostensibly the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi considered even more fucked and brutal than Hitler himself. For those like me who had no idea, Heydrich was killed in broad daylight in the middle of the road in Czechoslovakia by two members of the British secret service, Jozek Gabcik and Jan Kubiš, who parachuted in, for the most part assuming they’d be killed before they could escape. The novel carefully follows Heydrich’s rise to power during the escalation of the Nazi party and their employment of the camps, leading up to what is known of the two assigned killers and their mission, as well as their fates, all of which alone contains no small amount of coldly calculated hell.
Binet’s approach to telling the feral story goes beyond simple recapitulation. So much must be invented in any history book. Even if you were there, the lines of what is told and what is kept and how each sentence is selected changes the nature of the events, themselves fully obscured page by page. The history itself must be filtered through the author’s eye, and then through their selection of the verbiage, and the order in which those words are placed. Binet makes no bones about this: He lets you in on how he goes about constructing what is in other hands considered fact; the writing of the story cannot be separated from the story.
So, for instance, when the author is describing Heydrich meeting his future wife, Lina, and he discovers that said wife had written a book in which their meeting would be described, only to also discover that the book costs between 350 and 700 euros, which on a professor/author’s salary he cannot afford, he explains how he excused away the necessity of the book by telling himself his German isn’t very good and that the wife of the murderous Nazi wasn’t the end-all be-all, and that he could get along just fine without it. Of course, later he changes his mind and that whole quandary is overturned, but this is only one of countless iterations of such trouble in contemplating his subject matter. Following a brief scene where Heydrich bitches out one of his collaborators, Alfred Naujocks, for recording him while having sex in a whorehouse built to gather blackmail evidence against members of the party, Binet admits that all the dialogue you’ve just read is constructed from an account written down by Naujocks himself, which Binet imagines couldn’t be how it actually went. He then rewrites the scene as he imagines it would have gone, using language more particular to Heydrich’s person, changing him saying, “If you think you can make a fool of me, Naujocks, you’d better think again,” to “The next time you try to fuck with me, I’ll send you to Dachau, where they’ll hang you up by the balls!” In the end, neither is true, and history ended in that small room between those two men, though Binet multiplies the moment to give it not a face, but many faces, as all time surely is.
There is something true about the exploration of the moment that is just as pressing as the moment in the past itself. When Binet’s girlfriend, Natacha, asks what the hell he thinks he’s doing confabulating frames of history, he feels bad and deletes some of the lines, though he realizes that feels even more empty, and he goes and puts them back. He makes fun of himself for making poetic choices instead of more plain ones. The result feels surprisingly more cohesive and exciting than a straight story or another metafictional bags of tricks: These windows let us in not only into how a story is constructed, but how history is made. “Memory is of no use to the remembered,” Binet writes, “only to those who remember. We build ourselves with memory and console ourselves with memory.” Binet knows as well as anybody that history is fiction and fiction is history, and instead of hiding it, he lets it out, and it feels natural, refreshing, fun, while also staring into the face of one of the most warped humans to walk the earth. The historical scenes are so fluidly and beautifully rendered that when we’re not reminded of the machine of it, the fascinating story at the center of the novel is still what brings the whole thing all alive. If anything, HHhH is compelling for how it turns the machine of history on its head, and lets us stand there and remain entranced while it’s created. If more history books were written in such a giving way as this one, I’d probably remember a lot more.
Previously - Thinking About Suicide in the Breakroom