2012, 336 pages
Sometimes I think you enjoy a book better if you don’t know much about the topic. I’m rather abashed to mention that I get a little confused about the Nazi leaders: all those H’s (Hitler, Hess, Himmler, Heydrich….) When I read on the blurb that this book was about the assassination attempt on the life of Reinhard Heyrich, I really didn’t know whether it was successful or not (and if you don’t know either, I’m not going to tell you).
The front cover is striking – that chilling army hat with the death’s head insignia and a blurred face (is he just passing quickly by or is he being erased?) overstamped with ‘HHhH’ , the German acronym for the common saying ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’. Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Blonde Beast and the Butcher of Prague, was responsible for Kristalnacht, was an SS general, was appointed Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and was one of the main architects of the Holocaust. But, says the book’s discouragingly young author Laurent Binet, Heydrich is not the protagonist of this book, but instead the target.
The book is classified as ‘fiction’ (or at least, the publisher has decided to categorize it this way) , but it’s true. ‘The good thing about writing a true story’ says Binet ‘is that you don’t have to worry about giving an impression of realism’ (fragment 20).And it’s not history: he finds it untellable as history:
I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell this story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect- and these people, these real people who existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it- even higher and denser, like a creeping ivy- the unmappable pattern of causality. (fragment 150)
The author announces, close to the end “I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel” (fragment 205). Yet if it is a novel, he is brought back to the evidence. How is he to write a dialogue that seems plausible to him, when he has an eyewitness recollection of a conversation that feels artificial? How is he to second guess the inner thoughts of his characters? He even bridles against the thought of them as characters:
The people who took part in this story are not characters. And if they became characters because of me, I don’t wish to treat them like that. (fragment 251)
Yet if he is not writing history, then there is fictionalizing to be done- but he resists that as well:
That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet- a man who’s been dead for a long time, who cannot defend himself. To make him drink tea, when it might turn out that he liked only coffee. To make him put on two coats, when perhaps he had only one. To make him take the bus, when he could have taken the train. To decide that he left in the evening, rather than the morning. I am ashamed of myself…. But I’ve said that I don’t want to write a historical handbook. This story is personal. That’s why my visions sometimes get mixed up with the known facts It’s just how it is. (fragment 91)
I think that from these extracts, you can detect the flavour of this book. There are twin intentions at play here: first to tell of the assassination attempt on Heydrick’s life and to pay tribute to the bravery of the men who carried it out and second to grapple with the act of narrating this story. The narrator is, I think (without being absolutely sure) genuinely Laurent Binet the writer. He is present throughout: apologizing, backtracking, clarifying, justifying. Underlying this is a trenchant critique of historical fiction- most particularly of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones which was released at much the same time as this book was nearing completion- but also admiration of other writers who have attempted similar feats like W.E. Sebald, Vollman in Europe Central, Flaubert in Salammbo .
But there are a couple of places in which the author steps away and lets the story take place. The first is the assassination scene, which he circles around, almost too frightened to commence. At this point, as he baulks and dissembles, I felt like throwing the book against the wall, but once he starts it is brilliant writing that goes on for page after page. It is engrossing, breath-holding writing and it extends over several pages, unbroken, compared with the short sometimes only paragraph-length segments of the rest of the book. The second is the hunt scene- again, told at length. At first he attempts to tell it in the words of one of the assassins, but soon drops the pretense:
I am not Gabcik and I never will be. At the last second, I resist the temptation of the interior monologue and in doing so perhaps save myself from ridicule at this crucial point. The gravity of the situation is no excuse. … The truth is, I don’t want to finish this story. I would like to suspend this moment for eternity… (Episode 250)
He then starts a countdown by day, but the dates are in 2008, as he (supposedly) writes this section- sometimes just a sentence, other times even a page. He writes about an episode eight hours in length, but it takes him from May 27- June 18 2008. Of course, all this is artifice: he’s probably rewritten these paragraphs several times. His story of himself as writer is a narrative conceit that he chooses to foreground, just as other authors choose to suppress their own presence in the text.
I often find when I’m reading that I frame the text I am reading against one that I’ve recently finished, or perhaps am still reading. In this case, I read this book immediately after reading Kitty’s War. There are similarities between the two books: both are written in the present tense; both have the author on stage; both co-opt the reader as ‘we’ (whether you want to be included or not); both purport to resist the text even while they are dealing with it. What makes one ‘history’ and the other ‘fiction’?
Butler’s book has a named, verifiable source text, even though it is held in private hands. The other texts that she triangulates it against have a similar status, and her work draws on secondary texts which themselves call on similar provenances. It has the academic architecture of footnotes and bibliographies. Binet’s book has none of these things. In the end, you just have to take his word for it- there’s nothing named specifically to check against.
Perhaps it also comes down to the authenticity and reputation of the “I” as author. Binet treats himself as author with self-deprecation and undercuts himself at every turn; Butler – as with all academics- never does. She might admit doubt and go out on a limb, but she always takes her endeavour seriously, as indeed it is her professional responsibility to do.
Another way to think of it might be to think about what the author would need to do to the text to transform it from fiction to non-fiction or vice versa. To turn the Binet text into history (albeit a very post-modern history) , you’d need to tone down the authorial interruptions (especially about his girlfriend) and invented conversations and add footnotes and references, but much of the text could remain more or less intact. Butler’s book, however, would need to be turned inside out to make the transformation into fiction. In fact, I don’t think it could be done without dispensing with much of the book, and it would lose its whole raison d’etre. Perhaps that is the ultimate testimony to its historicity.
Laurent Binet will be attending the Melbourne Writers Festival later this month, and his session in conversation with Michael Cathcart, will be simulcast on Radio National on Friday 23 August 2013 at 10.00 a.m. No doubt it will be available as a podcast afterwards.
My rating: 9.5/10
Sourced from: La Trobe University Library
Read because: London Review of Books review.