Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: HHhH

HHhH by Laurent Binet

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In seeking to be oh-so-clever, HHhH abandons fiction, history and narrative in favour of a post-modern meta-narrative that becomes so tangled and confused that it undermines itself at every turn. Binet claims to despise fiction, yet his book is classified as fiction, yet nothing in it is fictitious – unless the story about how the book was researched is itself fictitious. But if so, the whole premise of Binet’s obsession with truth falls to the ground, because how can a book obsessed with telling the truth require the reader to do his own research to determine whether the author is telling the truth or not? More importantly, it’s boring.

Binet flails between fact and speculation, and despite his stated veneration of facts and contempt for fiction, he gets many of his facts wrong. He claims to have seen the damage to the rear door of Heydrich’s car, even though the car didn’t have a rear door; he says that Heydrich changed the spelling of his first name – a claim found nowhere else – and he declares that the Hussite rebellion was crushed at the Battle of White Mountain, which didn’t happen till two centuries later.

HHhH is confused and muddled, neither fiction nor non-fiction, neither story nor history, with a pedestrian style that’s easy enough on the eye but hardly great prose, and the lack of page numbers is a pretentious irritation.

Binet totters from denouncing fiction to filling his account with baseless speculation. He wants to make his story personal but makes it impossible to care about him, making his account of his research bland, impersonal and tedious. It’s all flat, self-indulgent anecdote and I’m baffled as to how Binet – still less his publisher – imagined that anyone would care. Giving a book an unusual structure isn’t enough to make it a classic, whatever Martin Amis says. Most of the time it comes across as simply lazy, not to mention arrogant and hypocritical.

Considering the fulsome praise it has received, HHhH is a monumental disappointment.

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