Book review: HHhH on WWII and historical fiction

It is possible that this was the book that President Aquino was reading when he compared the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines to the Munich Agreement in an interview with The New York Times:

“If we say yes to something we believe is wrong now, what guarantee is there that the wrong will not be further exacerbated down the line?” he said. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it — remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”

Peter Beinart, writing for The Atlantic, said it was rare “(for someone to compare) a contemporary international situation to ‘Munich’ without sounding absurd.”

“For more than half a century, ‘Munich’ has been the most abused analogy in American foreign policy. The actual Munich agreement, signed in late September 1938 by Germany, Britain, France, and Italy, gave the largely German-speaking Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia to Germany despite Czech warnings that it would leave the country defenseless and whet Hitler’s appetite for further conquest, which it did.”

* * * *

HHhh

There are many, many things which I still don’t know about World War II (including the details behind Munich) and HHhH fills in the gap with such wit, integrity, humor, and somberness. This was one of the rare books which, as I ended, made me sigh and smile as I think of this lovely tribute for all the fallen heroes of the war.

I mentioned integrity because here’s a novel wherein the author, writing as the narrator, comments on other historical novels and films, particularly their “psychological dimension, which is full of interior monologues.”

For example:

“‘That night, at an altitude of two thousand feet, the huge Halifax aircraft roared out of the sky above the winter countryside of Czechoslovakia. The four airscrews churned through the drifts of low broken cloud, flailing them back against the wet black flanks of the machine, and in the cold fuselage Jan Kubis and Josef Gabchik stared down at their homeland through the open, coffin-shaped exit hatch cut in the floor.’

“This is the opening paragraph of Alan Burgess’s novel Seven Men at Daybreak, written in 1960. And from those first lines, I know that he hasn’t written the book I want to write. I don’t know how much of their homeland Gabčík and Kubiš could see at an altitude of more than two thousand feet in that black December night. As for the image of the coffin, I’d prefer to avoid such obvious metaphors.”

The meta references are conversational and they are what I find funny; the author proves that such informality could be a highly effective literary device. (He even discusses what the name of the book would be, and if released differently, then it would have been his publisher’s fault—his publisher won.) I can imagine how this could irritate readers as I normally get with such ruminations (see Proust), but Binet charmed me.

Ten paragraphs and I haven’t even said what the book is about.

HHhH stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.”

Heinrich Himmler, who was the Chief of the German Police, was one of the persons directly responsible for the Holocaust. His deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, was a rising star in the Nazi party and partly responsible for the Final Solution to the Jewish question. He also became ‘Protector’ of what is now known as the Czech Republic.

The novel is about the assassination of Heydrich and the heroes responsible for it, primarily Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, with Josef Valčík. It is a gripping account of the events surrounding this assassination and I wish more people know their names (and thanks to this book, there will).

On a sad note, Germany’s reprisals due to the assassination were heartbreaking. As if the Holocaust wasn’t heartbreaking enough.

* * * *

First chapter

Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

So, Gabčík existed, and it was to this name that he answered (although not always). His story is as true as it is extraordinary. He and his comrades are, in my eyes, the authors of one of the greatest acts of resistance in human history, and without doubt the greatest of the Second World War. For a long time I have wanted to pay tribute to him. For a long time I have seen him, lying in his little room—shutters closed, window open—listening to the creak of the tram (going which way? I don’t know) that stops outside the Botanical Gardens. But if I put this image on paper, as I’m sneakily doing now, that won’t necessarily pay tribute to him. I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature: an ignominious transformation, but what else can I do? I don’t want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance. I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.

* * * *

More on the Munich Agreement:

Along with France and Italy, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, brokers the deal between Germany and the Czech Republic, without the latter’s consent or even prior knowledge: a Czech province, the Sudetenland, had been given to Germany.

Chapter 67

Chamberlain, on a balcony in London: “My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.”

Chapter 68

Krofta, the Czech foreign minister: “They have put us in this situation. Now it’s our turn; tomorrow it will be their turn.”

Chapter 70

Churchill: “You had to choose between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor. You will have war.”

World opinion has never been as significant, swift, and collective as it is now. It would be interesting how China’s bullying and vast territorial claims would play out in such a time.

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