We could summarize this book by saying, ‘This is historical fiction about the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heidrich in Prague during WWII.’ But that doesn’t come anywhere close to describing what’s it’s really about.
The events and the characters in this novel are all true to life. As the first-person narrator says early in the book: ‘Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence.’
The story is meant to honor two heroes of Czechoslovakia: Jozef Gabčik, a Slovak factory worker, and Jan Kubiš, a Czech soldier. In 1942, they were assigned to parachute into Czechoslovakia, make their way to Prague, and bring a well-deserved reckoning to Reinhard Heydrich.
Sadly, it’s impossible to tell the story of heroes without spending time with the villain — and Binet paints a vivid picture of Heydrich. He was held up as an example of the Aryan ideal: tall, blonde, quite clever, and very, very cruel. Binet digs into Heydrich’s history, trying to understand what lead him to become the man known as the Butcher of Prague, the Hangman of Prague, the Blond Beast, and — Hitler’s nickname for him — The Man with the Iron Heart. (BTW, these were all considered compliments.)
As the story of the assassination attempt — and its devastating aftermath — unfolds, the narrator name-drops specific streets, museums, restaurants, squares, and parks in Prague that bring us into the heart of the action. You’ll feel like you’re peeking into the rooms where these unsettling conversations and startling events took place.
Not for nothing, HHhH was one of The New York Times Notable Books of 2012. The structure of the novel is a little unorthodox: It’s composed of 257 chapters of just one to two pages each. The short chapters give it a breathless quality that demands page turns. It’s invaluable for understanding Czech history and getting a sense of how Czechs think, but it’s not a staid history book. It’s a vibrant, gripping account of bravery in the face of unconscionable evil that makes this 80-year-old story feel fresh.
Warning: Unsurprisingly, this book includes brutal descriptions of the Holocaust, so if you’re sensitive about reading things like that, tread lightly.
About the title: Heydrich was the right-hand man to Himmler, the leader of the Nazi party in Germany. The book’s title HHhH stands for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, which means ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.’
I imagine clouds of crows flying around the sinister watchtowers of the dark Týn Church. Under the Charles Bridge flows the Vltava. Under the Charles Bridge flows the Moldau. The peaceful river that crosses Prague has two names — one Czech, the other German. It is one too many. — Laurent Binet
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