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review: fiction

Heindrich Himmler (left) and Heydrich Reinhard (centre), Hitler's architects of the Holocaust, in Paris circa 1940-42

It is both easier and harder now to remember the Second World War. Information and images abound, but fading is an immediate reason to bother looking. As the current generation of grandparents passes, so passes the vital connection, our living motive for research, reverence, regret and recollection.

That a generation is growing up unmoved by the Second World War is not a matter of disrespect; it is the passage of time, coupled with our current fixation on the historical now. So much is happening, and we can learn about it all. How does one motivate a passage into history? What is the appropriate route for such a passage?

Literature is on the front lines of these questions. The rich historical gusher of the Second World War continues to fuel the literary imagination, but authors must contend with their distance from the subject, as well as the barbed political territory of narrating history. The rigour and sensitivity of this contention dictate the success of these novels. Our century has so far seen mixed results. While we've been provided inventive, virtuoso efforts, such as William T. Vollmann's Europe Central, we've also suffered facile, voyeuristic works like Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

Entering into this arena is Laurent Binet's HHhH, an astonishingly strange debut novel, translated from the French. HHhH – which stands for "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich," or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich" – narrates the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious "Butcher of Prague," Himmler's right-hand man and architect of the Final Solution.

Or rather, HHhH narrates the narrator's contention with the telling of this story. Indeed, the novel's successful completion seems as precarious as the success of the assassination mission, code-named Operation Anthropoid.

HHhH triumphs precisely because it not only delicately, and sometimes grippingly, depicts a major historical moment, but because it manages to depict the unique challenges of 21st-century remembrance.

The narrator, presumably Binet, who was born in 1972, admits to his apprenticeship in the movies, novels and video games that now make up our experience of the Second World War. Like a good 21st-century cultural savant, he regards these artifacts with as much scrutiny as his primary source material. Frequently pausing his story, he casts a critical eye across these works – praising Europe Central, for example, as "the voice of history [resounding]perfectly," and scorching The Kindly Ones as "Houellebecq does Nazism." (Twenty more pages of anti-Littell polemic were apparently cut from the novel's final draft.)

Having assessed the perils of historical fiction, the narrator proceeds to thread the genre's Scylla and Charybdis. He resists succumbing to "the puerile, ridiculous nature of novelistic invention," the urge to falsify events for dramatic convenience; but he also resists the temptation to maximize, to include every available detail with a hoarder's madness.

It has become somewhat of a trope in contemporary fiction to have as a narrator a historian or researcher, whose obsession with Nazism consumes, overwhelms and transforms her or him irrevocably. These narrators typically suffer breakdowns, buckling under the weight of evil. William H. Gass's The Tunnel took this subgenre to its hideous extreme, and in David Albahari's Götz and Meyer, a researcher's breakdown concludes with the image of him "lurch[ing] full force, into the wall."

Lost in the Borgesian labyrinth of historical fact, "the infinite branching of cause and effect," Binet's narrator acquires some traits of this peculiar subgenre, including the vision of the wall: "I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it – ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy – the unmappable pattern of causality." This feeling will be familiar to anyone lost in the infinite branching of Wikipedia.

Although Heydrich completely dominates the novel's first 100 pages, Binet's narrator rejects casting the Butcher of Prague as his main character: He wants Gabćik and Kubiš, his heroic assassins, to assume the limelight. Unfortunately, though the narrator hopes their late entrance will "give them more substance," the heroes of this novel are rather wooden. We root for them, but we don't feel their presence, as we do Heydrich's.

Even the novel's title is robbed from the good guys: "I never thought of giving [ HHhH]any other title than Operation Anthropoid (and if that's not the title you see on the cover, you will know that I gave in to the demands of my publisher, who didn't like it)."

So much therefore depends upon the evil in the engine of this novel. Lucifer-like, Heydrich steals the spotlight from the angels. Everything slides into the pit of his mind. In turn, HHhH suggests an unsettling truth: Passages into history will be motivated not by our admiration for heroes, but our attraction to evil.

Michael LaPointe is a writer and literary journalist in Vancouver.