It is June 2008. You are in Prague. At the table next to you, on the terrace of the Two Brothers café in the Karlovo Namesti, sits Laurent Binet, typing earnestly into his Apple laptop. The late spring heat is oppressive, but the fatigue in Binet's brown eyes comes less from the weather than from the intensity of his effort. You observe as a bead of sweat trickles down Binet's forehead, before dripping from the tip of his nose onto the heavily annotated manuscript on which he appears to be working. Looking closer, you notice the manuscript is titled "HHhH". What can it mean??
Binet really does exist. A quick wiki search reveals that he was born 40 years ago in Paris and that "HHhH" is his first novel. I'm pretty sure he wrote at least some of it in Prague, and the picture I saw in the `Paris Match' colour supplement makes me think his eyes are probably brown. Or hazel, maybe. But I need to level with you. The scene in the first section of my review is pure invention. I have no idea whether Binet uses an Apple laptop. Did he ever edit his manuscript in the Two Brothers café? I have absolutely no idea.
"Look, don't get me wrong. It's OK, but Umberto Eco was doing this kind of stuff 30 years ago. It's tired, it's stale, it's old hat. Postmodernist narrative structures are so 1980s. Don't take it too hard: the 1942 part of the story is fine, but all that navel gazing about how you did your research? And your relationship with your girlfriend? Come on Laurent, who wants to read that kind of thing?"
This wasn't the reaction Binet had expected from his literary agent. Clearly the manuscript would need another redraft. He sets off crestfallen towards the Two Brothers café.
Carol, my wife, has just brought me a copy of `Hello' from July 2012, and there's a photo of Binet on page 32. Isn't it funny how, when you start to write about something, you suddenly find it everywhere? She's convinced Binet's eyes in the photo are in fact green. Green, brown, hazel... This is really starting to bug me now.
"HHhH" is a self-reflexive postmodern novel about a 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia. Parallel to this historical narrative runs the story of how the author, Laurent Binet, researched it, and the dilemmas he faced in trying to construct a novel that was truly faithful to his source material. In it, Binet constantly plays with our expectations as readers. There are no page numbers; there are 257 chapters, ranging in length from 20 pages to a single sentence; Binet blurs the boundary between past and present, and inserts himself into his own historical narrative. More subversively, time and again he uses our appetite for "the story" to show us how easily we can be manipulated by a text - a kind of narrative ju-jitsu that pulls the rug out from the reader's feet by hooking us into a story only to show us that the story is ultimately a fake. This technique in turn asks us broader questions about the interface between fiction and reality: how is possible to write history, let alone historical fiction, that truly conveys how `things really were'? Binet peels back the layers of this conundrum with a calm and neutral honesty, and with a seriousness that belies the playfulness of his narrative structure. Amazingly, there's tension, suspense and excitement not only in Binet's war story (and it's a great story, well told), but also in his more philosophical quest through the thickets of postmodern critical theory. It's a fascinating book, and well worth reading. Unquestionably deserving of five stars.
You know, I'm just not happy with section 4. I don't think I'll include it in my final review. I feel bad about giving my wife a false name. And anyway, you can't believe everything you see in `Hello', can you?
He is alone on the Champs Elysees, striding purposefully away from his agent's office. He has the winner's cheque for the Prix Goncourt in his pocket and, as the autumn sun glints in his blue eyes, he surrenders himself to a sensation of pure vindication. And, somewhere in Paris, I am there with him.