Sunday, August 28, 2016

Laurent Binet – ‘HHhH’

Let’s look at that last quotation from Look Who’s Back again. Hitler confronts nationalist party leader Holger Apfel: ‘A true German does not wriggle around in legal formulations; he talks straight! The racial idea is the fundament for the preservation of the German Volk.’ ‘He talks straight’ is a common defence of right-wing leaders against reasoned argument (see also: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’), and yet the irony is that Hitler did not talk straight: he didn’t say he was planning to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, because he knew that world opinion would be against him. HHhH looks at the way this plan came into being, not ideologically, but practically. There is a mass grave at Babi Yar near Kiev, containing over 100,000 bodies. Chapter 111 describes how the victims, all Jews, were herded towards it, and directed by a ‘crammer’ to lie ‘facedown, naked and alive, on top of naked corpses’, before another guard ‘put a bullet in the back of the neck’. It was eventually realised that this was ‘too distressing for the soldiers who must carry it out’, and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD (‘SD: Sicherheitsdienst, the security service’), is put in charge of refining the process, which he does first with mobile gas chambers, mentioning ‘better solutions, more advanced and productive’ to the field officers of the SS in chapter 194. Chapter 252, just a short paragraph, tells us that ‘The most appropriate tribute paid by the Nazis to Heydrich’s memory’ was the naming of Aktion Reinhard, ‘the programme to exterminate all Poland’s Jews’, for which the first concentration camps (at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) were set up. With such subject matter, it seems a little weak to ask the question: what makes this book a novel?
Everyone finds it normal, fudging reality to make a screenplay more dramatic, or adding coherence to the narrative of a character whose real path probably included too many random ups and downs, insufficiently loaded with significance. It’s because of people like that, forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories, that an old friend, familiar with all these fictional genres and therefore fatally accustomed to these processes of glib falsification, can say to me in innocent surprise: ‘Oh, really, it’s not invented?’
        No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism?
Fair point, but if you want to write about Nazism without inventing anything, why not write a history book? There are several answers to this, I think. One is defamiliarisation: you don’t expect everything in a novel to be literally true, so you spend more time questioning what you’re reading, which makes you more involved. As do the author’s chatty, playful interjections, which point out the limitations of recorded facts when telling a story, and bridge that gap with an account of his own changing relationship with them. He’s obsessed, he gathers far too much material, he minds too much that he can’t establish whether Heydrich’s car was black or green, he lies to us about whether or not he spent a stupid amount of money on a copy of Lina Heydrich’s memoir Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher, his girlfriend Natacha features as a long-suffering, sometimes critical presence (‘What do you mean, “The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull”? You’re making it up!’), and their relationship doesn’t survive the writing of the book. Most movingly, he can’t bring himself to rush the climactic scene, when the heroes are holed up in a church, besieged by the SS. He gives each new paragraph a date in the present (i.e. 2008, when the book was written), indicating that he is drawing out the writing to delay the inevitable end, because he can’t bear it. He admits that he can’t begin to imagine their situation, but the point is broader: no-one today could possibly do so, and this is another reason for not attempting fictionalisation.

The heroes? Oh yes. I haven’t mentioned that the main plot here is variously the ‘assassination’ or ‘assassination attempt’ (Binet tries to maintain a little suspense by alternating the terms) of / upon Heydrich in Prague on 27th May 1942, arranged by Czechoslovakia president-in-exile Edvard Beneš, and carried out by Jozef Gabčík (Slovak) and Jan Kubiš (Czech). They are parachuted in to the country near Prague in chapter 147, which is, in its entirety: ‘So, to cut a long story short, they jumped.’ They are hidden away by the resistance movement, find girlfriends in the daughters of one landlady, and basically sit around for a few months while Binet fills us in on the back story, making us hate Heydrich as much as possible. He has more than enough material for this, and laments that he has so little on the parachutists themselves (‘I’d like to spend my days with the parachutists in the crypt’). They do come into focus during the later scenes, of the assassination attempt and the siege. The attempt is bungled, in that Gabčík’s Sten sub-machine gun jams when he is standing in front of Heydrich’s car. He doesn’t think to fire his pistol, instead running off as Heydrich shoots at him. Meanwhile Kubiš has time to come up behind the car and throw his bomb. Heydrich is injured, and survives, but there are complications arising from the surgery (his spleen was removed), and he dies, on 4th June, with septicaemia the suspected cause.

This is where Hitler’s cunning plan not to announce the Final Solution to the world falls apart somewhat. The reprisals he unleashes after Heydrich’s death are, again, unimaginably awful, but they are seen by the wider world to reveal the true nature of his regime and, in Binet’s account, had the effect of hardening the resolve of the USSR and the USA to defeat him. This is the victory of Gabčík and Kubiš, who saw only the immediate repercussions of the assassination, and didn’t live long enough to see the tide turn. Following a false clue relating to some other parachutists, before discovering the real assassins in the church, the Schupo (police) rather than the SS massacre the inhabitants of the village of Lidice, and destroy all of its physical structures: the ‘cemetery is desecrated, the orchards destroyed, all the buildings burned, and salt thrown over the earth to make sure that nothing can ever grow here.’ It’s too much, too blatant, even though the number of dead (hundreds rather than thousands) pales in comparison with Babi Yar. A reminder that stories usually matter more than bald facts.
In Washington, D.C., the naval secretary declares: ‘If future generations ask us what we were fighting for, we shall tell them the story of Lidice.’ The name of the martyred village is scrawled on the bombs dropped by the Allies on German cities, while in the East, Soviet soldiers do the same on the gun turrets of their T34s. By reacting like the crude psychopath that he is (rather than the head of state that he also is), Hitler will suffer his most devastating defeat in a domain he once mastered: by the end of the month the international propaganda war will be irredeemably lost.

No comments:

Blog Archive