Books

Call of Duty: Laurent Binet’s Battle with Fiction

For all its postmodern affectations, the basic aims of HHhH, Laurent Binet’s debut novel (translated from French by Sam Taylor), can be reduced to the first line of The Aeneid. Binet sings of arms and two men. The novel is about a person trying to tell a story about a hero and a war. The war is World War II and the heroes are Jozek Gabcik and Jan Kubis, two real Czech parachutists, who in 1942 were sent by the Czech government-in-exile to assassinate the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague and one of the architects of the Final Solution. Exiled from their homeland, the heroes wander across war-torn Europe overcoming a series of obstacles and setbacks—their odyssey controlled as much by the gods of chance as fate—before finally meeting their deaths. The codename for the mission, Operation Anthropoid, sounds grotesque, like some mythical creature, like something only a writer could make up. And, like The Aeneid, Binet spotlights the telling of the story as much as the story itself. As much as the novel is about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, it is equally about Laurent Binet’s process of writing about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Binet, besides being the author, is also its narrator and, I’d argue, more than Heydrich or Gabcik or Kubis, its true protagonist.

My reasons for enjoying the book and Laurent Binet’s reasons for writing it, though, couldn’t be further apart. Obviously with most works of art the artist’s intentions are a moot point, but Binet spends a good chunk of the novel explicitly laying out his intentions. On the very first page, he interrupts his introduction of Jozek Gabcik to launch an extended soliloquy in which he dramatizes his plan for writing about Gabcik:

“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, windows 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 in 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.”

The story’s so-called stakes, instead of being whether Gabcik and Kubis will carry out their plot (because that is never in doubt), hinge on Binet’s ability to give the story “some substance.”

Binet fails. I could not, as Binet hoped, see through “the blinding veneer of fiction… to the historical reality that lies behind.” Gabcik remained only a “vulgar character,” and I did not put down the novel thinking that I understood all the real details of Operation Anthropoid. These are the novel’s limitations. But, they are also the reasons I enjoyed reading it. Binet set out to build a cenotaph, something that would unironically memorialize Gabcik and Kubis, as well as all the real people who died at Heydrich’s hands, but he ended up with something more idiosyncratic and fun—a novel that has more in common with mass entertainment; a novel that manages to make the agonizing problem of trying to turn the substance of life into fiction and inevitably failing seem as entertaining and compelling as a comic book, action movie, or video game.

The book jacket, designed by FSG specialist Rodrigo Corral, looks like the cover of a comic book. It has the graphic sense found on both the cover of old pulp novels and war propaganda posters. Set against an alarm red backdrop, the four monolithic, concrete-colored Hs of the title read like arcane agitprop, a coded or garbled version of a wartime slogan (Loose lips sink ships!). The cover’s two toy-like parachutists, presumably Gabcik and Kubis, punctuate its noirish intrigue, as expressive and dark and featureless as exclamation marks. HHhH’s characters also happen to be flat and relatively featureless. Gabcik and Kubis seem shapeless and unknowable—not in the way of real historical figures, but in the mythic, sweeping way of action heroes. Binet briefly sketches their motives, vaguely pinpointing the way each was affected by Heydrich. But motives are ultimately beside the point. He knows little of their early lives, and all that ultimately matters are their actions, that they killed Heydrich. What doesn’t seem to matter to Binet is the emotional gray matter permeating those actions, the dark tissue filled with everyday hopes and fears—basically, the stuff of novels.

This is what happens when you want to rely only on the quote-unquote facts: lives get abridged, reduced to data. A portrait of the two heroes is painted with the impersonal, monochrome details of a dossier. The only background on them comes verbatim from the British Army’s personnel reports. Gabcik, for example, is good with explosives and can’t drive a motorcycle. In contrast, Kubis is really good with explosives and can drive a motorcycle. For Binet, these sketchy anecdotes are sacred objects. Gabcik and Kubis are held at a distance, as if intimacy or familiarity would somehow diminish the grave significance of their actions. They are men who abide by the same basic principles as a Clint Eastwood character: they are men without a past, nor a future. They are Lee Marvin in The Big Red One or Russell Crowe in Gladiator—ridiculously heroic, hard-boiled men bound by a sense of duty that inevitably leads to their death.

HHhH resembles a genre novel in many ways, something closer to a thriller or mystery than the genre-defying historical novel it claims to be. Binet (i.e., the narrator) is basically a detective, hunting down clues about Operation Anthropoid, paranoid that he’ll lose his story to fiction. He seems oblivious that he’s a character in a work of fiction, that he is in fact a narrator. His constant, hysterical insistence that he actually exists and is not just a fictional character sounds like a recrimination. “I’m not a character,” he pleads. He is neurotic, defensive, and obsessive. He is, in a lot of ways, that classic fictional archetype: an unreliable narrator. Binet’s fidelity to truth and history in the face of impossible odds (he’s in a novel!) is an act of private heroism, like Don Quixote’s devotion to a dying knighthood or Ahab’s to a white whale. Binet is also, paradoxically, the only character in the book that actually seems like a real person, whose voice has its own distinct tics and timbre.

HHhH lacks a lot of the hallmarks of what you might call a “good” story—both deliberately and not. It’s hard to completely identify or sympathize with Gabcik or Kubis in the way a narrative—through tactics like drawn-out, fanciful exposition—is supposed to make you care about its heroes. The novel’s vision of 1940s Europe is neither immersive nor evocative. Impassioned emotional peaks (at least in their English translation) sound clumsy and histrionic. During the climactic action scenes, when Binet’s meta-commentary quiets, the melodrama crescendos, so operatic that it verges on kitsch. But these failings, instead of making HHhH bad, pretentious, or worse—boring—are exactly what make the book so entertaining. It has an addictive, compulsive quality usually found in video games, not experimental historical fiction.

At base, HHhH is a war story of good and evil. When Binet uses the second-person to walk us through a montage of the heroes’ days leading up to Operation Anthropoid, it reads less like the postmodern literary pyrotechnics of something like Bright Lights, Big City, and more like the experience of guiding a character through a video game. Gabcik and Kubis’ training and the experience of playing a first-person shooter are the same:

“You jump, you shoot, you fight, you throw grenades, you’re good.” The POV is masculine and clichéd: “You are extremely charming. You’re a good soldier and the girls love you. You flirt with young women… You continue to train for the most important mission that any country has ever entrusted to only two men. You believe in justice and you believe in vengeance. You are brave, willing, and gifted. You are ready to die for your country… You are a simple man. You are a man.”

It’s one of the few moments where Binet takes us, however tepidly, inside the two heroes’ heads, and it winds up being one of the most histrionic moments, loaded with platitudes. Binet doesn’t even seem to try to take us anywhere remotely near their anxieties or fears. There is no hesitation. Kill the bad guy, get the girl(s). Yeah, you think, easy enough.

The well-drawn World War II scenes crammed with violence are punctuated by long stretches of aimless tedium, some of which are spent wondering how real those WWII scenes seem. It’s an uncomplicated version of WWII—and war in general—where unseemly moral ambiguities are redacted. You, along with Gabcik and Kubis, are the good guys on one side, and the bad guys on the other. Contemporary life fills the space between the moments of riveting action, like an interlude or load screen. This could be a description of HHhH, alternating between the story of Operation Anthropoid and Binet’s writing of a story about Operation Anthropoid. It could also edescribe the hours I’ve spent obsessively playing Call of Duty 2: Big Red One, a video game in which you control a U.S. marine fighting his way across the European theater during WWII. (If you replaced the first-person with the second- or third-person, this review of the Call of Duty franchise on Kill Screen Daily wouldn’t look out-of-place in HHhH: “I remember laying on my stomach for forty-five minutes in Stalingrad, dozens of Stielhandgranates dropping two feet away from me, having no clue how to I was ever going to make the next checkpoint. I was inching down a flight of stairs, hiding behind railings and the dead bodies of fallen comrades, vainly hoping the onslaught would cease as soon as I reached a nearby column”).

Unlike a video game, though, a novel’s ending is always fixed, its last word always the same. This is especially true in a historical novel, where the events have to follow a set timeline. No spoiler alert: Gabcik and Kubis and Heydrich die. But, at the end of the book, Binet does something completely out-of-step with his refusal to imagine or invent, and it’s utterly perfect: he presses the reset button. The game starts over. Gabcik and Kubis meet again. They’re on a boat in the Baltic, on their way to unknown Lavinian-like shores. They know nothing about their future involvement in Operation Anthropoid, nor their future deaths. The scene’s cinematic and, like a lot of HHhH, kind of cheesy. Gabcik’s eyes meet Kubis’s and, like Ingrid Bergman telling Sam to play it again (a famous piece of dialogue that never actually happens in Casablanca), asks, “Got a light, comrade?” The scene is quixotic and misty-eyed. It’s also impossible, a glitch, a final knowing oversight on the designer’s part showing the limits of his medium. It violates the rules Binet’s laid out; disregards his fidelity to the facts and history—Gabcik and Kubis can’t meet again. It’s a kill screen: the perfect ending, emblematic of all the ways in which HHhH fails, and all the ways it succeeds.

Sam Freilich lives in L.A.