HHhH by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor)

February 15, 2013

There are two books here: One is a fictionalized account of historical events, the other is a book of criticism aimed at historical fiction and the problems inherent in that genre. Before reading HHhH, I, perhaps unwisely, read James Wood’s review in The New Yorker. The wisdom deficiency is in not caring, for I certainly realized, that James Wood’s interpretation and judgment would irrevocably shape my own. So now, although I would like to assure you and, in the process me, that I would have reached conclusions very similar to Mr. Wood’s on my own, there is nothing I can say that would accomplish that task. Much less is there anything I can say that would make it knowably true.

I did just recently read Austerlitz and, thus, almost certainly would have made unfavorable comparisons between that great work and this one. I do not like the narrator of HHhH and I think that is my own genuine reaction. I would not have known for certain, however, that the narrator is, in fact, Laurent Binet and not “Laurent Binet” fictionalized self and relative of Summertime‘s John Coetzee but for Mr. Wood’s providing solid evidence to support that conclusion. I think the book would be more interesting if Binet was a counterpart to John Coetzee. My criticisms then would largely be of the fictionalized author rather than the actual author and it would leave open the possibility that the actual author was aware of the defects in the fictional author’s arguments and presentation.

For me, Binet identifies a difficulty with trying to capture the truth of an historical event, but, rather than proposing an interesting solution (Coetzee’s multiple, subjective perspectives, for instance), he bemoans the problem while also capitulating to it. In fact, he embraces the methodologies he excoriates far more than necessary to accomplish his narrative goal. Woods put it thusly: “Binet has his cake and eats it, and gets to cry over the spilt crumbs, too.”

In other words, the “book of criticism”, as I have called it, unfortunately inextricable from the historical story, is not persuasive. But, it does have me thinking and typing about the intersection of historical truth and storytelling. Truth and storytelling may not be strictly compatible in a reductionist view of historical truth-telling where, unless every fact related is objectively true, the entire edifice crumbles. However, I think Binet is wrong in starting from that reductionist premise. Even the most cursory reflection on the subject reveals that a good story about actual events can never provide the reader with the “objective truth”. Frankly, I think his error is in assuming that it is theoretically possible to write an accurate history from a “god’s eye” perspective the same way Flaubert can write a perfectly objective account of Emma Bovary through omniscient third-person narration. No historian, nor any amateur sleuth bent on writing historical fiction, can attain the omniscience necessary for this sort of narration.

Austerlitz makes this point by nesting points-of-view like Russian stacking dolls: “But I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz…” We are not getting the story directly from an all-knowing god, rather, the story comes to us from a very human narrator who gets it from Austerlitz who gets it from, in this case, Vera. The contingency of historical facts and the uncertainties of recollections is not ignored, but is used to a purpose. History is somewhat like a game of telephone, we can only hope that the gist of the message has not been lost. Hoping for an accurate transcription of the original is folly.

Binet, though, defies the necessary subjectivity of any account of history. He believes a complete tally of every detail is, theoretically, possible. After one section of fictionalized narrative, he writes: “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet…To decide that he left in the evening rather than the morning, I am ashamed of myself.” Perhaps he should be, but not for the reasons he proclaims. Binet is so concerned with facts, the minutest details, he falls into the same hole recognized, and avoided, by Austerlitz’s secondary school history teacher (Hilary):

All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us: the fallen drummer boy, the infantryman shown in the act of stabbing another…..Our concern with history, so Hilary’s thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.

Binet, I believe, is obsessed with accurately rendering the details of these “preformed images” rather than trying to get at the truth of the matter which does not exist in a detail like the precise expression on someone’s face:

And even if there are clues to Himmler’s panicked reaction, I can’t really be sure of the symptoms of this panic: perhaps he went red (that’s how I imagine it), but then again, perhaps he turned white. This is quite a serious problem.

But it is not a problem, serious or otherwise. It is not a problem for the historian because the historian need not speculate on which color Himmler turned, assuming he changed colors at all. The historian will give us the known facts indicating that Himmler was panicked, but has no need to speculate on the fifty shades of Himmler’s face. It also is not a problem for the fiction writer because these are precisely the details that matter for storytelling but matter not at all for the truth of what the novelist (historical or otherwise) is trying to convey. Whether Himmler turned red or white matters no more than accurately describing from a color palette Himmler’s original skin tone the moment before he heard the panic-inducing news. This fervid focus on the accuracy of cliched details is not brilliance or even intelligence, it is an author lost in a jungle of his own planting. Binet, though, seems too proud of his concern for these facts (is the Mercedes black or dark green?) to recognize the triviliaty of his quest.

41HyeElHR2L._SL160_I quickly found these worried asides both distracting and annoying. Almost as annoying as Binet’s use of, again I will use Wood’s words, the “trick of giving the impression that he is thinking the book through as he is writing…” This novel is obviously a well-polished work of art. Binet even comments within the text on the various drafts and his edits. But then he slips in things like: “Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Re-reading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research….I become aware, to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made…” Perhaps yes, but actually no. Yes, he may have discovered an error in that way and he may have been horror stricken, but he is neither now nor when he sent in his final draft, horror stricken at his errors. He has chosen, after much thought and deliberation, to leave them in precisely so, as a character, he can be horrified. Binet by presenting these errors to us for the purpose, presumably, of showing how easy it is to get a detail wrong, makes it much more likely that we will take away from this book errors rather than the facts with which he is so concerned. I remember a number of things about Gabcik, which one of those was I supposed to forget? I cannot remember. Thank you, Mr. Binet.

Binet cannot really have been concerned with me, his reader, nor about a scrupulously accurate story, for he leaves in errors to push his critical point while knowing that readers (primacy effect, etc.) will likely remember untruths he embedded in the text for the purpose of demonstrating how concerned he is with strict, objective truth. At moments like that, Binet seems mostly concerned with Binet and least concerned with his audience.

And that is another mistake Binet makes: He directs the spotlight away from the historical truth he claims he is after and towards himself. The story of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis and the many other heroic contributors to the Czech Resistance ends up being eclipsed by Binet’s obsession with the color of the Mercedes in which Himmler rode to his castle. It is a mistake not only because the power of the story is diminished by the narrator’s intrusions (“Gabcik takes out his lighter and touches it to the German’s cigarette. I’m going to light one too….,” Binet writes at one point; at another, he laments: “I don’t even have time to mourn them…,”; perhaps worst: “…[Gabcik] runs down toward the river. And I, limping through the streets of Prague, dragging my leg as I climb back up Na Porici, watch him run into the distance.”). Pulling readers’ attention away from the ostensible heroes is also a mistake because Binet seems to misunderstand the problem of getting history right. In fact, he seems oblivious to the lessons of philosophy and post-modernism generally.

A god’s eye view of history is impossible. His effort to achieve it, or book length whine that he cannot, is akin to a Creationist’s search for the actual site of the Garden of Eden. Binet’s intellectual concerns are obsolete. Any account of the past is necessarily subjective, no matter how scrupulously you verify the make of the bicycle on which Kubis pedalled away from the ambush.

More damningly, this misguided chasing and the artifice he uses to convey it, becomes extremely tedious.

I have mainly cast stones, from the safety of Wood’s skirts, at that second aspect of the book. However, the story of Gacik and Kubis and the Czech Resistance, though not spectacular in terms of either storytelling or language, is both fascinating and important. Binet has done an incredible amount of research and often leaves the main narrative to relate unrelated acts of heroism from World War II, such the sacrifice made by the Kievan soccer team. Those asides add much to the book, giving as they do other perspectives on the times and the resisters’ heroism. They are much better breathers from the main narrative than, for instance, that authorial cigarette break which is wedged into an otherwise enthralling story. The book is good, in other words, despite the major problems I have with the argument Binet puts forth and the manner in which he makes it. This is a book I found well worth reading for what it does right and, too, for what it does wrong. It provokes. Literature that provokes must have done something right.


The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (tr. by Geoffrey Strachan)

February 7, 2012

There is a grand tradition in which old men look back on their lives recounting the moments that made them who they are. It frequently occurs in novels too. From The Fall to Waiting for the Barbarians to The Underpainter, great literature has used this device to provide both distance and immediacy, both wide perspective and intensely personal focus. The character often is not the old man who tells the story. He is but a boy or a young man or even a middle-aged man who does not know, to our narrator’s dismay, what our narrator knows. And, though we know the boy or young man makes it to old age, we still cringe at the dangers he faces because we do not know what his condition will be on the final page.

The Last Brother uses this well-trod device to suck us into a story that yanks more heart strings than most people have. In addition to the (sort of) child narrator, Appanah deploys, in no particular order: natural disasters, clashes of religion, domestic violence, disease epidemics, abject poverty, racism, and, that powerful trump, the Holocaust. The old narrator sees with his young eyes more of life’s worst between the ages of eight and ten than most people see in a lifetime. One almost wonders if the book is some sort of reply to Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps a bolstering of Ivan’s anti-theist argument from evil.

This French novel is set on the island of Mauritius, from which Nathacha Appanah originally hails. (Nobel Prize-winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio also has “strong family connections” to the island of just over one million people.) Appanah’s novel found its inspiration in real-life events on Mauritius in the closing years of World War II. Her characters are fictional, but all of the large scale events in the novel are historical.

The novel opens in the present-day with a line reminiscent of Camus’ The Stranger: “I saw David again yesterday.” We immediately know that David is significant and, shortly, we know that something has kept Raj, the narrator, and David apart since David was ten years old. Appanah does a magnificent job of withholding enough of the mystery of who David is and why the narrator has not seen him for decades that I will not spoil it, though it is all told within the first six pages.

Most of the story takes place when Raj is nine years old. He lives with his parents and two brothers (Anil and Vinod) on the Mapou sugar cane plantation. The time and place is nicely evoked, as is Raj’s relationship with his brothers. Their father works in the cane fields and they live in a makeshift shelter, not even a shack, that, like every other sleeping place in the laborer’s camp, provides only the barest protections from the elements. The camp is a rock-studded mud hole that turns to an omnipresent dust between harsh rains. Life is hard and the children have to work nearly as soon as they can walk. Anil, Raj, and Vinod (in order of age) have the relatively plum job of carrying water from the nearby river. On these walks, Anil carries a stick, something Appanah uses to nice effect:

Anil always walked with a stick bent near the top into a U, sometimes resting his hand in the crook of it. It was a branch from a camphor tree which had been strongly scented for a while but had then simply become a little boy’s stick. He would twitch the grasses in front of him to drive away the snakes, which terrified us, Vinod and me. Anil adored this stick. It was, after all, the only thing that was really his own, that he did not have to share with anyone at all. It was a source neither of danger nor envy and no one could claim it from him.

We learn both how destitute the family is, how Anil shepherds his younger siblings through the dangers of camp and family life, and how, implicitly, Raj has not even a stick to call his own. There are other little nuggets, including that this stick, unlike the one his father uses to beat them and their mother, is “a source neither of danger nor envy”. Appanah and her translator (Geoffrey Strachan) handle this heavy novel as they do this particular scene, that is with aplomb.

The themes of brotherly love and familial bonds are predominant in this book, as well as the inherently tragic nature of life itself. This is not a light and happy read. Prepare for an emotional wringer. And, yet, the feelings Appanah elicits do not feel falsely won. There was a real story and there is real art in Appanah’s rendering. Neither life nor the novel treat Raj lightly. Given David’s absence from Raj’s life for something like sixty years, we know this period weighs heavily on Raj. Whatever else life has given him or done to him, he is forever marked by that brief, tumultuous time in his youth. Raj’s childhood choices are haunting spectres most fearsome for their persistent presence.

This is a TOB 2012 contender and, given some of the mixed reviews for Murakami’s homage to Orwell’s 1984 (i.e. 1Q84), The Last Brother may have an outside chance at an upset. On the shout-out front, Appanah nods not only to The Stranger with her opening line, but to other great French works too, like Alain Robbe-Grillet’s superb The Erasers. I don’t think a judge would have to be at all embarrassed to pick Appanah’s work over Murakami if the former spoke to them more directly than the latter.

Scouting the judge, however, suggests that 1Q84 and its science-related speculations will perform as expected against Appanah’s much less experimental, much more emotion-driven work. Misha Angrist is a Ph.D. bearing scientist whose bio has this quote:

I suspect that most of our children will have genome scans as a routine part of their health care, to say nothing of their social lives. I want to understand what that world might look like.

The novel of ideas will, I think, prevail.

I am happy to have read the book, happy to have been exposed to new facts about the horrifying plight of Jews fleeing Europe during World War II, and pleased to have made an acquaintance with this author. The book, however, will not appeal to everyone and likely will not go deep into the Tournament. In fact, while I liked it better than The Sisters Brothers, this also is not precisely in my “wheelhouse”. But The Last Brother is exactly the type of book (a serious and readable small press offering) that ought to make it into the lower seeds of the Tournament of Books. Kudos to the deciders on this one.