HHhH, By Laurent Binet. Harvill Secker, £12.99

 

Rebecca Armstrong
Tuesday 17 July 2012 19:19
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What are you looking for in the next book you buy? If you're interested in an account of how an ordinary man became one of Germany's highest-ranking Nazis, head of the secret services and second in command to Himmler, Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the architects of the Final Solution, read HHhH for its account of the life of Reinhard Heydrich, the "blond beast".

Perhaps you'd prefer a thrilling tale of wartime resistance, of desperate shoot-outs, of secret training. HHhH (it stands for "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich" in German) will give you that with its tale of how a Czech and a Slovak prepared an audacious assassination attempt with the help of Czechoslovakia's government in exile.

Maybe you're after a work that explores the relationship between a writer and the words they use, between truth and its place in making history come alive. Try HHhH. And if you'd like to find out what the man who wrote the book thinks of his rivals as well as how he's getting on with his girlfriend, HHhH should satisfy your curiosity.

Laurent Binet's Prix Goncourt-winning debut novel, translated by Sam Taylor, is ostensibly the story of Operation Anthropoid, one mission among millions during the Second World War. But Binet creates an unusual relationship between himself (well, the character he portrays as the book's author) and his reader. It's less a case of an unreliable narrator than a narrator trying to give us the most accurate history he can, but talking us through his struggle, whether bogged down with detail, jealous of his rivals or annoyed with himself over his obsession with Call of Duty.

Binet is nothing if not knowing, with lines such as "I've been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination", and he is deft with his interjections. All this could be wearing, but Binet keeps his chapters short – and this dipping in and out of history gives HHhH an interesting pace. It's all very modern, but Binet is clever enough to tell a ripping yarn at the same time as giving us footnotes as to how he has done it.

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