HHhH (“Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” that is, “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) tells the thrilling story of Slovak Jozef Gabćik and Czech Jan Kubiš, who assassinated the “Butcher of Prague” Reinhardt Heydrich. The two parachuted into the assignment, knowing it would cost them their lives.
It’s written in the voice of a friend, witty, irreverent, and slightly pretentious (French, of course), telling you about the historical novel he’s researching. Most centers on Heydrich (married, by the way, to a minor aristocrat and fervent Nazi), a man who was hugely responsible for putting the Holocaust into motion. The narrator shares the best bits of his research and also his concerns over how to tell the story. He despises, for instance, the fictional deceit of pretending to show readers what’s going on inside historical figures’ heads, or even imagined dialogue. He agonizes over whether Heydrich’s Mercedes was dark green or black: a meaningless detail that historical novelists know can consume days of research. It is exactly the type of detail that readers (including the book’s narrator) love to pounce upon as proof that the writer has or hasn’t done their homework. The narrator watches a television documentary on Hitler and his minions at Eagles Nest and tells us, “This is a real treat for me. I like to delve as deeply as possible into the private lives of my characters.”
The book, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman in 2010, is distressingly entertaining considering its subject matter. Recommended.