His title, both catchy and unpronounceable, declares Laurent Binet’s determination at once to grab the reader’s attention and proclaim his originality. We are promised that HHhH, a German acronym for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich (‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’), was a quip current in Nazi Germany. Confirmed rumour has it that the title was suggested by Binet’s publisher, Grasset, instead of the ‘too sci-fi’ Opération Anthropoïde. The diplomatic Grasset also suggested removing a long attack on Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which won the Prix Goncourt a few years ago. Binet’s account of the assassination of Heydrich duly won the Prix Goncourt for the best first novel of 2010.
HHhH comes badged with all the usual modish blurbs and gushes, from Martin Amis and Mario Vargas Llosa (who stamps it ‘unsurpassable’). ‘All the characters in HHhH are real,’ we are promised. ‘All the events depicted are true.’ In which case, what kind of fiction is this and what kind