WORDS BY SOPHY KOHLER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARETH SMIT
The allure of French historian and novelist, Laurent Binet, lies in a strange quartet of characteristics — a combination of soap star looks, a skin-prickling accent, a brilliant mind, and bizarre tea habits.
At the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May last year, we sat down to tea and scones (always a festival highlight). Binet, in turns out, enjoys his ceylon with milk and a slice of lemon. And, while I felt compelled to have the same, instead I went all out and grabbed myself a cup of coffee — milk, no lemon. Like almost all respectable people, Binet enjoys his scones with jam and cream, but unlike most respectable people, he likes to dunk his scones in his tea. A test, a scare tactic, ignorance, or his norm? It seemed impolite to intervene, so I smiled curiously on; I found it strangely endearing.
It is not in my place to criticise the practises of Binet; his debut novel, HHhH, has made numerous Best Book of the Year lists as well as having won the Prix Goncourt in 2010. Additionally, praise from Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, David Lodge, Mario Vargas Llosa, Wells Tower and Gary Shtenyngart is worth taking into account.
Set in Prague in 1942, HHhH is an account of Operation Anthropoid, a covert mission in which two Czechoslovakian parachutists — Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš — are sent to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo and widely considered to be “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”. Heydrich is even more feared than his boss, Schutzstaffel (SS) head Heinrich Himmler. And, within the SS, it is said that “Himmler’s Hirn heißt Heydrich” (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich) — HHhH. Running parallel to this narrative is Binet’s account of telling the story and his battle against the temptation to use fiction to fill in the blanks in the historical record.
Binet describes HHhH as an “infra-novel”, a term he invented in order to provide a French equivalent of what we, in English, would call a non-fiction novel. According to Binet, HHhH is predominantly about how to write a true story and resist the pull of fiction. He uses the story of Operation Anthropoid to explore this question alongside one which has bothered him since he was a kid, that of the difference between the author and the narrator. In HHhH, the narrator is overtly Binet. “There is no difference in the book between the author and the narrator,” he tells me. “I was struggling so hard with the historical matter, that I think it wouldn’t have made any sense to fictionalise that part. It would have been unnecessary.”
When I ask Binet about the possible dangers involved in reducing the actions of real characters to fiction, he assures me that the danger is not in fiction itself. Rather, it is when fiction is used to prove something or when it masquerades as truth that it becomes problematic. “I have no problem with Inglorious Basterds by Tarantino,” he tells me by way of example. “It’s very funny and obviously playful. Tarantino doesn’t want to prove anything about the Second World War or Hitler. He’s just playing with fiction. Not with history, but with fiction. What I don’t like is when fiction just pretends it’s true, that is dangerous, and the most dangerous books or movies are when there is 90% of truth and 10% of fiction, because then the fiction will be hard to detect and you can fake things.”
Binet is careful to avoid deceiving his reader in this way, describing a kind of deal that exists in HHhH where the difference between fiction and reality is always made clear. Where Binet allows fiction to bleed into history is in moments where the historical detail or his knowledge of a particular event is too lacking for his account of it to be pure; and the desire to make things up is strong. In such places, he admits his own fallibility, describing himself as “the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination”. He separates these moments out by beginning with “I imagine” or following with “I have lied”. It is Binet’s commentary on his failure to capture the truth that makes the book so unusual.
While my instinct is to question the reliability of a narrator who frequently says such things as “I’ve been talking rubbish”, Binet is unsure; he hopes that this honesty makes him more trustworthy. “I think it makes the reader more careful,” he says. “In a way, what I want to say to the reader is don’t trust anything and don’t trust anyone.” He argues that, with such an abundance of novels, “we are so used to manipulation, that even if I try to make it so clear, some people don’t trust me because they don’t trust a narrator anyway.” The narrator’s own continuous self-doubt is what gives HHhH its humour, what Garth Risk Hallberg in The Millions has called “comical anxiety”.
While HHhH asks some serious questions, it is also a cheeky book, one which violates many of the norms of writing and publishing. The UK edition of the book, published by Harvill Secker, doesn’t have page numbers. “It’s a kind of publishing trick,” Binet tells me. “It is funny and it works, from a marketing point of view, because people talk about it. I know some people believe it’s pretentious or irritating, but I’m OK with that. I like it.” The novel also features wild shifts in tense and points of view. “What I didn’t want to do, which is not controversial anymore today, but I think it should be, is to use “I” and to make Heydrich or the parachutists talking,” says Binet. “I am not Heydrich, I am not Gabčík, so why would I say ‘I’? For him, the use of “you” during the book’s denouement, was as much a way of talking directly to the characters as it was a way of involving the reader. “I don’t pretend that I am Heydrich or the parachutists,” he furthers. “Rather, I ask you what you would imagine if you had been them.”
Binet reckons his publishers let him get away with bending the rules of writing, because at the time they were preoccupied with more consequential transgressions. It was during French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign and Binet was heavily critical of him. “I was writing my book and listening to him on TV and sometimes he was saying things that reminded me of Hitler’s speeches,” he tells me. “So I made a few chapters about it and they told me it was too much, that we would be in trouble; that I must please cut it.” Laughing, he continues: “Maybe it was an exaggeration, but it wasn’t my fault! Sometimes he said things that were close to Hitler’s speeches!”
HHhH is full of moments that reveal Binet as subscriber to the saying “fact is stranger than fiction”. In one passage, he describes a situation in which an old friend asks of the book, “in innocent surprise”, “‘Oh, really, it’s not invented?'”. Binet turns to the reader to respond: “No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism?”
Similarly, Binet describes Operation Anthropoid as “more fantastical than the most improbable fiction” and, yet, the temptation to invent is still strong. After resisting the influence of fiction over reality for roughly 400 pages, he gives up the struggle and resigns himself to fact that the two inevitably meet. HHhH concludes with a dreamscape in which he imagines Gabčík and Kubiš on a steamboat headed for France. He sees a young woman who looks like his partner, Natacha, and concludes: “I am also there, perhaps.” Binet tells me that he sees this final chapter as a kind of letting go: “I thought it was an elegant surrender, an elegant way to say ‘OK, I stop fighting’.”
Binet is currently working on another book which, like HHhH, will explore the complex relationship between reality and fiction, this time set in the 1980s which, he reminds me, “is also history”. Through a naughty smile, he reveals: “I will try to see how much you can twist history before it breaks.”
At a time when historians are still vehemently resisting the literary turn, HHhH is a brave book for its refusal to ignore history’s place as a branch of literature. But Binet’s own aim for HHhH takes the book beyond the reach of postmodernism. “I hope that the reader will take the story as it is, which means as a true story,” he concludes.