In spite of its at first incomprehensible title I, as anticipated, was magnetised by this book. The Second World War has captured my reading attention since teenage prison years and I am more than familiar with both the plot and characters in this work. The strange title when explained reveals a lot – HHhH, abbreviated from Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich – Himmler's Brain is called Heydrich.

Throughout, it was difficult not to have misgivings about the style of Laurent Binet. That was more the challenge posed by difference than it was the result of any intrinsic deficiency in the book. A novel that was not really a novel written by a novelist who seemed more of a historian capable of crafting a tapestry in the manner of Antony Beevor: a nonsense free vacuum that sucks the reader into the pages and a form of literary oblivion from which there is no escape until the end. Much like the crypt in which the central characters in this story found themselves in a fate foretold ... and retold.

Although a work of political history the writing strategy is one whereby the author inserts himself into the narrative: he has fears and doubts about how his task might be done. The intensity of his need to lead the pack and see off other challengers in the field is matched only by his apprehension anytime a new work comes out that might steal his thunder. He endlessly reflects on the methods and even weaves his girlfriend into the script, while sharing with his reader a snippet of a conversation between figures from history: which he then confesses to having no idea if that is how it really happened ... just that it could have. 

The question of whether Binet is self-indulgent or seriously self-reflective is left hanging and will remain a matter of interpretation and taste. There is something playful about it, his French compatriot the late Jacques Derrida perhaps lingering in the mind of Binet as he plied his pen. As a historical novel it aimed for the bull's-eye and scored. 

For all of that there is never really the feel of the novel to it. No refuge in Camus where “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” There is too much of the fastidious fact finder in Binet for that. Excitement lies in the narration of events we are already familiar with. He has agonisingly obsessed over the events surrounding the death of Reinhardt Heydrich. 

Back in 1977 as a young republican prisoner and still susceptible to the romanticised myths of war, I watched the film Operation Daybreak, and came to regard it as one of the more memorable from the projection reel jail movies that prison management would put on every ten days or so prior to the arrival of the video. I was impressed by the courage of the fighters, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, who eliminated Heydrich, the butcher of Prague. There was a shudder at the thought of how it all ended for them. I wondered how we would fare out when the dreaded midnight knock pounded on the door and nothing but physical obliteration lay across the portal. Four years later, Kieran Doherty, Kevin Lynch and eight others gave their answer to that. 

In contrast to the emotions enlivened by their heroism, there was only rage towards the former comrade who betrayed the men who had slain the butcher, Karel Čurda: you would have done it too your honour for 1, 000 0000 marks. Well, no, I wouldn’t, your dishonour. That is not some necessary recalibration or tactical acquiescence made in the hope of buying time or space within which to strategise or psychologically fortify the self for what lies ahead. While any amount of mitigation can be found for the person broken by torture to the point of compromising his friends, in Čurda’s case there is nothing that redeems his treachery. The solitary mark on the neck made by a suicide rope was a better option than the 1, 000, 000 marks of betrayal. 

The destruction of Lidice as a revenge attack, based on nothing but Nazi assumption of culpability, is painful reading. It unflinchingly conveys what evil is. Whether the children targeted for murder are Palestinians on a Gaza beach, the kids of Lidice mineworkers, whether their name is Anne Frank or Majella O’Hare, there is an unalloyed and restless evil at work in the minds of their killers.

Knowing the end to this particular tale is no bar to the appreciation to be derived from reading HHhH. Appreciation is a better word than enjoyment which seems too close to schadenfreude even when there is no such intent: a literary feasting on the unspeakable misery others were forced to endure. Can the reader “enjoy” that? 

Upon finishing HHhH I bought a copy for a friend in prison and told him on the phone it was on his way to him. Delayed no doubt by jail bureaucracy and the paranoid suspicions of jail security that the title might contain some subliminal message about the H-Blocks which in turn could undermine good order and discipline in Maghaberry. That is how security people tend to think. Not to my surprise my imprisoned friend too had listed Operation Daybreak among his favourite films. 

Binet's novel should be one of his favourite books.

Laurent Binet, 2013, HHhH. Published by Vintage. ISBN 978-0099555643


  1. Sounds interesting. I had similar experience after watching Das Boot and Stalingrad of stimulating my interest in man's brutality, perseverance and simple desire to survive.....read the books too but the pinnacle was actually being on the actual u boat from the film. It was a reconstruction of a u boat....Bloody claustrophobic and how those submariners stayed sane is very hard to fathom. Yet for most of the crew they never saw the brutality of their torpedoes just as American pilots never saw the brutality of napalm in Vietnam.
    Will look out for it AM.

  2. Das Boot was brilliant - one of the best war movies I ever saw. Enemy At The Gates didn't come near it in my view.

  3. Der Untergang (The Downfall) with Bruno Ganz is probably the most memorable WW2 movies I've seen lately. Spellbinding and enlightening.

    Unfortunately these days people's only experience of it would be parody's taken of his outburst when he realises all is lost.

    Been looking for a new read for awhile, will definitely get this, cheers Anthony.

  4. Steve,

    Downfall is a brilliant movie. Another to make the top grade. I remember his tantrums but they showed the decline of a bullying personality that never lost the penchant for bullying, but lost power to make it as effective.

  5. Steve,
    I had completely forgotten Der Untergang.....brilliant film which to me captured the reality of the last days of Hitler and his staff....thanks, I must watch it again.

  6. AM
    I think Stalingrad was made by the same director or producer of Das Boot....far superior film to that of Enemy at the Gates....really portrayed the brutality of that battle...all rules of engagement went out the window with that fight.

  7. Stalingrad - is that where they capture the Russian female officer?

    I saw one a while back and thought it okay but not in the same league as Downfall or Das Boot. It might not be the same one.

  8. No worries Niall, its a cracking movie. I read a book last year which made a case for Hitlers escape to Argentina, can't remember exactly what it was called (Grey Wolf?) but it did read as plausible. Had some pretty convincing eyewitnesses too. Odd.

    Given the arrogance Hitler had it did make me wonder. Ah, the power of the written word lol

  9. Picked Stalingrad up in a charity shop for a yoyo there so will watch it some night

  10. Top drawer movie in Letterkenny cinema 2nd July and it's showing for FREE. Original film of the Ulster division going over the top at the Somme. Tempted to go but think with the strong temptation to cheer and yeefuknhaa at the big screen on my part the COI / Presbaterians of E. Donegal might go berserk.

  11. Larry,

    You're a feckin header LOL

  12. I'll keep an eye out for that book too Steve...cheers

  13. Niall has left a new comment on your post "HHhH":
    Niall says


    No I don't think so as I cant recall that seen. You could be right though!

    Stalingrad, made around the early 90s, from what I can remember was more focused on a group of soldiers who were ex-Afrika Corps and being re-assigned to the Russian front and all about their experiences in Stalingrad.

    The scene you mention reminds of Cross of Iron, Sam Peckinpah, featuring James Coburn and a few well known others .... Steiner, as Coburn's character was known, and his motley crew come upon a small company of Russian women fighters as they try to get back to their own lines...

  14. Niall,

    watched Stalingrad: great show. Hadn't seen it previously: must have been Cross of Iron