Saturday, December 28, 2013

Of collaborators and resistance fighters

I guess I spoke too soon when I posted my 10 favorite reads for 2013 in the previous post. I never knew that I'd be making a late addition to it, and it's this debut novel by Laurent Binet—HHhH. Somehow, I'm glad that this would probably be the last book that I'll be reading for the year, for HHhH is one truly glorious read.

HHhH is Laurent Binet's debut novel, but it doesn't feel like it. This historical novel really makes other books in the genre feel like they've been written by history undergraduates who are just too lazy with their research. If there's anything that Binet pulls off in this novel, these are the meticulous details that make HHhH very richly textured.

HHhH stands for "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" or Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." Now, Heydrich: If there's one man more feared that Hitler during WW2, it was this blond who was responsible for carrying out the Jewish solution, the systematic killing of Jews. I can't imagine how one person can think of all those gruesome ways just to exterminate a group of people. But Heydrich was able to do it, until he died of an infection after an assassination attempt.

So HHhH is about how two exiled operatives living in London were able to change the course of this dark period in our history. And these two are Josef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš, a Slovak and a Czech, resistance fighters extraordinare. I have much admiration for these men after reading the novel. I wouldn't have the courage to go into enemy territory and plot to kill a person so close to Hitler. You know that if you've been tasked to do this mission, there really is no coming back.

Most of the chapters of the novel focus on Reinhard Heydrich though. It provides details from his youth up to his quick rise leading to Hitler's cabinet. The Blond Beast, everyone called Heydrich, for he really had those "prized" Aryan features—he was tall, had blue eyes, and striking blond hair. But what makes Heydrich truly Hitler's soldier is that he shared the Führer's plan—to rid all of Europe of Jews.

The novel's very postmodern in its narrative. Oftentimes, the narrator strikes a conversation with the readers, telling us how such and such detail were arrived at. And the narrator can be funny too, especially when he mentions how certain dialogues by famous men in history can never be truly confirmed. When the narrative makes way for conversation, the narrator is quick to point out this caveat. In a way, this technique seems to be quite endearing, as if the author makes fun of himself or at least criticizes the way he presents his story.

Because HHhH is about an assassination, it reads like a thriller and adventure story. How can it not be, no? At the part where the actual assassination is described, the reader is left breathless. And during the hair-rising climax when the resistance fighters were trapped in a church surrounded by Nazi stormtroopers, you can't help but root for them, even though you know that that's one situation where it's impossible to get out of.

I just wish that there were many historical novels written this way. History is exciting. We shouldn't be forced to read boring texts about events that influenced how we are now. I think this is why I loved HHhH so much. It shows us that history was made by people, and that these people thought of us when they risked their lives or did remarkable things.

Read this book if:
  1. You love historical fiction.
  2. You want to give postmodern novels a try.
  3. You are, like I am, fascinated by all things related to WW2


Jack said...

This looks like a wonderful read, my friend, and I thank you for pointing it out. Allow me to point out for your consideration The Emperor's General by James Webb. This is historical fiction that begins in the last months of WWII, and follows MacArthur as he liberates the Philippines and moves on to become the military governor of Japan. The story is told through the eyes of a fictional junior officer on his staff, and as we have all come to expect from James Webb, it is spectacular! I would recommend this as a book for your reading group, as it really brings out the dignity and courage of the Filipino culture on its way to its main story of the behind the scenes power struggles in post-war Japan. My understanding is that MacArthur is quite the hero there, probably more so than he is in his own country, and I really believe you and your friends would enjoy this; I know I sure did!

Harvee said...

Re collaborators and resistance fighters, I read Jojo Moyes historical novel The Girl You Left Behind, about art theft in WWI and modern day restitution.

Peter S. said...

Hi, Jack! Yes, MacArthur is a very popular figure here in the Philippines, most especially in Leyte where my mother comes from. I must admit that I don't know much about him, so this book that you're recommending will be something I'd read in an instant if I find it!

Hello, Harvee. I haven't read a Moyes yet. Will also be on the lookout for this!

Louize Gonzales said...

Very interesting read, Peter. Added this to my TBR list.

And if I may, #4 If like a very yummy author. He's cute!

Peter S. said...

Hahahahaha. Oh, yes he is!

bennardfajardo said...

Nice review! I'm going to bump this up my TBR.:)

Peter S. said...

You'll have a blast with this novel, Bennard!