Wednesday, 6 June 2012


In his introduction to Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, Robert Chandler makes the point that individual chapters in the book read like short stories (specifically Chekhov). They are beautiful vignettes, often ending on triumphant sentences, such as: 'The Gestapo limousine sped down the autumn autobahn.'

It's a line Laurent Binet could be said to riff on in HHhH - much as the book's cover draws on Gerhard Richter's portraiture - when he dreams of writing the phrase: 'A black Mercedes slid along the road like a snake.' Mercedes cars recur in the young French writer's book about World War II's Operation Anthropoid and its target, Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Hangman, the Butcher of Prague or - by his own men - the Blond Beast.

I'd be loath to drag Geoff Dyer into yet another post if such work as The Missing of the Somme weren't an obvious touchstone for this 'personal' portrait. Dyer's non-fiction is the writing of the book he would have written if he hadn't written about writing that book instead. Or, as he puts it in Out of Sheer Rage, his book about writing a book about DH Lawrence: 'There are people who like to complete all the reading, all the research, and then, when they have attained complete mastery of the material, then and only then do they sit down and write it up. Not me. Once I know enough about a subject to begin writing about it I lose interest in it immediately.'

There are episodes that preempt Binet: Dyer finds he can't work without his copy of Lawrence's Complete Poems, 'crammed with notes and annotations', which he has left in Paris. Having regained it thanks to a friend, Dyer then leaves the 'talismanic' book in Rome. Unable to work in Greece he could blame his 'inability to get started on having left my copy of The Complete Poems in Rome', except: 'At the last possible moment, with the taxi rumbling downstairs, I had dashed back up, retrieved my copy...'

Binet recounts how he regrets not having snapped up, for 250 euros, a book called Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher (Living with a War Criminal) written by Heydrich's wife, Lina, after the war : 'I've reached the point in the story where I have to recount Heydrich's first meeting with his wife. Here more than for any other section, that extremely rare and costly tome would undoubtedly have been a great help.' Later he tells us, parenthetically, however: 'I admit it, I ended up buying the book.'

'Actually I don't know...'; 'I've been talking rubbish...' HHhH is strewn with such caveats. 'I said before that one of the characters in Chaplin's Great Dictator was based on Heydrich, but it's not true.'

Nevertheless Binet and Dyer are meticulous in their research, even if the former seems to garner much of his inspiration from films, notably Hitler's Madman (directed by Douglas Sirk and starring John Carradine) and Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943). There's more recent fare, too, including Conspiracy ('only five euros [on DVD] - postage and handling included'), DownfallThe Pianist, The CounterfeitersBlack Book and Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent - 'Heydrich in a Rohmer film! I still can't get over it.'

Binet's girlfriend, Natacha, teases that he may be turning into a fascist, as if he were the obsessive narrator at the centre of Roberto Bolano's war-gaming novel The Third Reich. Binet wields his real-life characters deftly but if I have one quibble about HHhH, it's in the editing: at times the construction means the reader is missing certain important facts, while at others the detail is repetitive.

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