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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Review – HHhH

There are so many stories written in and of Prague that the city’s streets, both real and imagined, are teeming with plots and characters. There is a novel, somewhere, in the observance of doors opening and closing as protagonists from across history and the pages of literature shuffle about those cobbled streets, each missing one another by mere moments as though characters in some Shakespearian comedy.

Perhaps aware of the promise fêted in the juncture of fact and fiction, French writer Laurent Binet has exercised the potential for this intersection within the colourfully sketched Prague of his debut novel HHhH.

The year is 1942 and two Czechoslovakian parachutists have been dispatched from London to their German-occupied homeland on a top secret mission: to assassinate the head of the Gestapo, Reinhardt Heydrich. No simple task if you consider Heydrich’s unofficial decoration was “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”.

Retelling this story is no simple task in itself. History rarely offers singular events, preserved intact and fastened with a bow. This is

especially the case here. Central Europe in the heat of the Second World War is no facile backdrop.

In order to honour the numerous people and stories that straddle the plot, Binet has conceived of a brilliant narrative device. The novel is broken into hundreds of short, punchy chapters that provide an opportunity for countless additions and asides. Dissection in this manner makes for stimulating reading; the narrative is constantly uprooted, examined and reframed.

Here is where the book has its most distinct flavour. Reimagining the assassination plot is only one of Binet’s prerogatives. Running parallel to proceedings is a pressing enquiry: when writing historical fiction, what responsibility does an author have towards real people and events?

It’s a candid question and one that is repeatedly invoked. In less capable hands, the ever-present voice of the writer could become an annoying buzz in the reader’s ear. In HHhH, however, it brings surprising touches of humour and warmth to what could otherwise have been a suffocating and deeply dark endeavour.

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