Tag Archives: French

HHhH – Laurent Binet: A Review

hhhh-by-laurent-binetSometimes a book comes along which changes the way you think about books. In HHhH, Laurent Binet redefines historical fiction and injects some much-needed life into an arguably tired genre.

The book charts the fates of paratroopers Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš and the blighted Operation Anthropoid. Their mission is to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague and the man dubbed by Hitler to be “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”.

And he is a right bastard.

The book’s title refers to the famous Nazi in-joke, “Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich” – Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich – marking Heydrich as a chief architect of the Final Solution. Binet had originally planned to call it Operation Anthropoide but his publishers dissuaded him on the grounds that it sounded too much like science fiction. Now booksellers across the world are faced with another problem – HHhH is a title that’s almost impossible to pronounce without hyperventilating.

But it’s not just about killing Nazis. HHhH is a book for writers and in it, Binet wrestles with the dilemma of writing a historically accurate account without letting his own imagination fill in the gaps. He constantly refers to other accounts of the period, scorning their inaccuracy and implicitly highlighting the superiority of his own book.

The author’s real triumph is his ability to maintain the excitement and suspense even when we know that our heroes are embarking on a suicide mission. As their hour of judgement approaches, Binet stalls, withholding a climax which he himself cannot bear to confront. This makes for genuine edge-of-the-seat reading that rivals any mass-market thriller.

A measure of the book’s success is its universal appeal. Almost all of my fellow booksellers have read it and loved it. That’s quite a feat when you consider that we rarely all agree on anything. From a marketing standpoint, HHhH looks like a “man’s book” and that has been the main stumbling block whenever we try to recommend it. But, so enamoured are we that none of us will take no for an answer, stopping just short of holding customers hostage until they agree to buy it.

For me, HHhH is the best book I’ve read all year. That’s something that I would usually have great difficulty saying but in this case, I’ll gladly run up a mountain just to shout it out. It’s different, it’s exciting, it’s educational and it’s funny and it has landed right at the top of my ‘essential recommendations’ list.

If you haven’t read it yet then I’m not talking to you again until you do. That’s how passionately I feel about it.

If you have read it, and now feel a gaping void in your life, then worry not, because you probably haven’t read it all. Binet was so scathing about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones that the publishers decided to omit a whole section of the book. Thanks to themillions.com, that section can be read in full here.


Europa Editions Publishes Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy

Total Chaos - Jean Claude IzzoFans of gritty European crime novels sit up and pay attention! Europa Editions have just published Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy.

Set in the cultural melting pot of Marseilles, these books take root in a seed-bed of bigotry, racial tension and fundamentalist rumblings. If that’s not the perfect setting for a crime novel, then I’m damned if I know what is.

In Total Chaos, the first book, we meet Inspector Fabio Montale, son of Italian immigrants and one-time street thug. Now, as a policeman, his thuggish skills are only put to use in the service of justice.

When the daughter of Algerian immigrants is found murdered, Montale must solve the case in a hurry before sectarian violence can erupt. He has a problem in that he can’t trust his colleagues. He can’t trust them because they’re a bunch of racists and, even though he’s a bit rough around the edges himself, Montale is essentially a knight of justice.

“So much violence. If God existed, I’d have strangled him on the spot. Without batting an eyelid. And with all the fury of the damned.”

He’s a good guy with a broken heart. The Marseille he used to know has become so engrained with problems that he barely recognises it. Gang wars, racism and drugs have turned his beloved hometown into an intimidating sprawl of high-rise apartments.

To escape the grim truth, Montale indulges in La Dolce Vita. He gorges on the finest food the Mediterranean has to offer, washing it down with generous quantities of wine (Incidentally, if you’re hungry, don’t read this book – it’s a kind of torture you’ve never suffered before, trust me). Fed and watered, Montale likes nothing better to sit and look at the sea.

But he’s a busy man and he can’t delude himself forever. Soon he must leave the table and face the reality he’s been trying so desperately to ignore.

A lot of crime fiction tends to politely skirt around social issues, resigning them to footnotes in a more exciting plot. Jean-Claude Izzo moulded his stories around these issues and instead of ignoring them, they become the obstacles that Montale must overcome.

“Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.”

Aside from Montale, the main character in the trilogy is Marseilles itself. We can see a colourful and vibrant place, hear the noise and smell the food. It’s multitude of problems sits on one side of a scale but is counter-balanced by the sheer life bursting from its seams.

So give it a try, or you can pop along to Europa Editions’ website and browse through a whole catalogue of authors you’ve never heard of.

You’ll be glad you did!

Fred Vargas: He’s a ‘she’, actually…

We’ve all been going a little mad for Fred Vargas in the shop lately. Now FOUR of us, including the manager are well equipped to personally recommend these superb crime novels to every single person who comes through the door.

Her name is Fred and who are we to argue!? Actually, her name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau but that’s just not as easy to remember. She’s an archaeologist by trade but every year, she takes time out and Frédérique becomes Fred.

The books feature Commissaire Adamsberg as the main character – a deep-thinking, hunch-following, super-cop. At the till, we refer to him as a ‘French Columbo’. None of us can agree as to what he looks like, but we’ve landed somewhere between a taller Sarkozy and a shorter Jimmy Nail.

If you like a good policier with an unpredictable twist, then Fred Vargas can be your new favourite author too.