A Question of History

ImageThere are a few books I can think of that I wish I could read again for the first time: Cloud Atlas, Midnight’s Children, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a handful of others (incidentally, the older I get the more this wish enters the realm of possibility, as I forget everything about everything I’ve ever read and it all becomes new again).  I am adding Laurent Binet’s HHhH to this list.  Binet has pulled off something unique and really, really difficult: an experimental, funny historical novel about a Nazi.  Really, it’s about the death of a Nazi, which makes the topic palatable, if not appealing, and enables us, knowing the outcome from the beginning, to laugh.  As much as it is about the Holocaust, however, this novel is also about itself: at every turn, it self-consciously interrogates the form and function of the historical novel, as well as history and historiography, through the author/narrator’s asides to the reader.  I hesitate to call them asides, since they are so central to the narration, and so abundant, but that is precisely what this novel (if it is a novel) calls on us to do: question the relationship of center to periphery, the value of what is left in and what is left out, and whether such a thing as an authoritative narrative of an event, or of history itself, can exist.  (In this, I should note, it is a sister text to a novel I have studied extensively, Sholem Asch’s 1939 Yiddish historical novel about Jesus, The Nazarene, about which I am happy to regale you some other time.  Back to HHhH.)

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Reinhard Heydrich

Ostensibly, or on one level, HHhH describes the events leading up to and succeeding the assassination of Reinhard(t) Heydrich, known as the Hangman, head of the Reich Main Security Office, organizer of Kristallnacht, chair of the Wannsee Conference, architect of the Einsatzgruppen, and, according to Hitler himself, “the man with the iron heart.”  Heydrich, the acting Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia (i.e., the Nazis’ puppet ruler of what is now the Czech Republic), was assassinated in Prague in 1942 by Jan Kubiš and Josef Gabčík, Czech nationalists and refugees, trained by the British government and the Czech government-in-exile.  This is the end of the story.  This we know from the beginning.  And that, of course, is the problem common to all works of historical fiction: the reader always already knows what happened.  HHhH tackles this problem by pursuing the story obliquely, always at its margins, following every seemingly digressive path, to suggest that we don’t always already know what we think we know, or what really happened, or whether any one authoritative account is ever possible.

Rather than a grand, sweeping, linear narrative, HHhH proceeds through a series of short vignettes, some about Heydrich, some about the history of the Holocaust and World War II, some about Kubiš and Gabčík, and some about the author/narrator’s own biography or his process in researching and writing the novel.  Some of these are a few pages long, some only one line.  This pastiche form extends, too, to the novel’s prose, made up of narrative passages, complete with invented dialogue (its invention is pointed out explicitly by the narrator); speeches; recorded conversation; memoir; poetry; newspaper articles; various historical documents and reports; and metaliterary commentary like this: “In the first draft, I’d written: ‘squeezed into a blue uniform.’  I don’t know why, I just imagined it being blue.  It’s true that in photos Göring often sports a pale blue uniform, but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day.  He might just as easily have been in white, for example.  I’m not sure if this kind of scruple still makes much sense at this stage.”

Sometimes this commentary is laugh-out-loud funny, usually at the expense of the ridiculous egos of some of the big Nazi players and their constant competitive political machinations in the service of gaining Hitler’s favor and thus control of a slice of the empire pie that the Nazis were making of Europe.  Very few writers or filmmakers have succeeded in laughing appropriately and well at the Holocaust or any part of it; some have tried, but failed (right now, I can only think of two films that make this attempt and fall short for very different reasons that I can’t go into here: Life is Beautiful and Inglorious BasterdsThe Producers, in its way, is more successful but also makes its Holocaust humor into a kind of footnote).  Binet’s success at writing something meaningfully humorous about Nazis cannot be overstated, precisely because it is so rare, and because it underscores the project of the novel so beautifully, its insistence on a non-monolithic, non-authoritative account of the events it describes, one that refuses to conform to expectations – indeed, an account that defies expectations purposely to expose the danger of those very expectations to a thick, rich understanding of history.

Binet slyly writes, “History is the only true casualty: you can reread it as much as you like, but you can never rewrite it.”  Of course he knows that this is exactly what he is doing, even if he senses his own powerlessness in the face of events as he does it.  We all rewrite our own histories, and the histories of others, all the time without admitting it to anyone (even, maybe, ourselves).  HHhH foregrounds this rewriting in the service of better history, and better fiction, and it’s a masterpiece of both.

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