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Frederic Raphael

The True History of the Heydrich Plan

By Laurent Binet (Translated by Sam Taylor) (Harvill Secker 336pp 16.99)

His title, both catchy and unpronounceable, declares Laurent Binet's determination at once to grab the reader's attention and proclaim his originality. We are promised that HHhH, a German acronym for ,i>Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich ('Himmler's brain is called Heydrich'), was a quip current in Nazi Germany. Confirmed rumour has it that the title was suggested by Binet's publisher, Grasset, instead of the 'too sci-fi' Opération Anthropoïde. The diplomatic Grasset also suggested removing a long attack on Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, which won the Prix Goncourt a few years ago. Binet's account of the assassination of Heydrich duly won the Prix Goncourt for the best first novel of 2010.

HHhH comes badged with all the usual modish blurbs and gushes, from Martin Amis and Mario Vargas Llosa (who stamps it 'unsurpassable'). 'All the characters in HHhH are real,' we are promised. 'All the events depicted are true.' In which case, what kind of fiction is this and what kind of truth does it tell? Binet is never so French as in his intrusions of himself and his love-life into the narrative and in the literary posturing in which he aligns himself with Flaubert, after confessing that he 'hated' him 'for fifteen years'. The reconciliation came with Flaubert's alleged dictum, 'Our worth should be measured by our aspirations more than our works.' This improbably crass, possibly ironic aesthetic is taken to entail, 'I'm allowed to make a mess of my book.'

Binet's subject matter is said to be that of 'one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War'. What appears to be a serious assessment is, in truth, internalised advertising copy. How can we rank acts of resistance, or even define them as a distinct category? The long and brave resistance both of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and, later, of the Polish Home Army against the Nazis, as the Russians approached and then stood back until the Poles had been liquidated, cannot be rated inferior to Heydrich's assassination. As for 'all human history', Samson in the temple of Baal did pretty well too, considering he was blind and didn't even have a dodgy Sten gun or a back-up bomb to turn on the Philistines.

Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, one Slovak, the other Czech, were parachuted back from the UK into occupied Czechoslovakia in late 1941 by the exiled president Edvard Beneš in order to kill Heydrich, the Nazi 'Protector' of the territory. Their bravery was beyond question, but its consequences were bloodier than anyone can have cared to foresee. Heydrich himself was only wounded in the ambush of his black Mercedes (which, we are told, in a little surge of 'scholarly' accuracy, may have been green), but he died three days later of septicaemia. Gabčík, Kubiš and a few other members of the Resistance died in a last stand in a Prague church against some 800 SS men. A chance connection between them and the little village of Lidice led the Germans to kill, or deport to concentration camps, its entire population as well as anyone connected in any way with the two parachutists. The Lidice Massacre came to stand for Nazi brutality and, it is said, lost them the propaganda war. The murder of over 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar, eight months earlier, had had negligible leverage on the world's conscience.

Binet is eager, from the start, to post his allegiance to the leading figures in world literature. Osip Mandelstam is featured in the epigraph; for trendy boosts, we get hors de pair talk from Claude Lanzmann and David Lodge. Binet also mounts attacks - always a form of tribute - on Saint-Jean Perse, Giraudoux, Claudel and Houellebecq (he chooses not to mix it with Céline). Rather late in the creative process, in section 205, we are told: 'I think I am beginning to understand. What I'm writing is an infranovel.'

Binet cites film and TV almost as much as he does other writers. In Chaplin's The Great Dictator, he identifies Göring as the fatso next to Hinkel, but picks out a 'tall thin man who looks much colder, stiffer and more cunning. This isn't Himmler, of course, but rather Heydrich, his very dangerous right-hand man.' Since The Great Dictator was released in 1940, there is, of course, not the smallest chance that the Zelig figure attendant on Chaplin's Führer mimicked the then unknown Heydrich. And - what do you know? - four pages later, Binet takes it all back, as if to show that if we were deceived, he never was. It's that kind of a show, folks. But not entirely: when - after protracted bouts of authorial metanarrative - Gabčík and Kubiš hit the ground (one of them limping) and begin to plan their exploit in detail, there is due delivery of the attendant excitements, even if we wish it would end differently.

What makes the novel unendurable, aside from the banal narrative devices, is - certainly in translation - the thesaurus of platitudes: 'tender care', 'passionate affair', 'parted effusively', 'dumbstruck and goggle-eyed', 'swashbuckling reputation', 'hums with conspiracy', 'stunned silence', 'flying colours', 'bombshell rocks Europe [the Anschluss]', 'spreads like wildfire', and so on. Had enough? If not, there are plenty more to truffle for.

HHhH plays games on several levels: it pretends to be historical, to be more accurate than other fiction (especially on the same topic), and also to be innovative and 'true'. The petty errors can, I suppose, be passed off as playful: Simone Weil is said to have been in Auschwitz, when in fact that was Simone Veil; Neville Chamberlain is alleged to have spoken of 'peace with honour' from 'a balcony in London', when in fact he did so in balcony-free Downing Street.

There are some good stories, some of them confessedly off-topic, such as the football game between Ukrainians and the German Army. The former won three times, according to some reports, with the resulting murder of most of the Ukrainian players. There is comedy in the Germans' attempt to remove Mendelssohn's supposed statue from the row of composers on the roof of the Prague opera house by selecting the one with the longest nose, only to find that they were about to degrade Wagner. I also learned that they drove on the left in occupied Prague; oh, and that the swastika still has that old black magic, saleswise.

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Frederic Raphael's Distant Intimacy, his exchanges of letters with Joseph Epstein, will be published by Yale University Press in October.

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