Histories, Aesthetics and Cultures of Dissent
Edited By Ben Dorfman
Verita Sriratana - “But That is Perhaps Why I Can Talk of Where I Want to be Without Always Being Dragged Back to My Starting Point”: Rethinking and Re(-)Membering Czech and Slovak Histories of Violence and Dissidence through the Historical “Infranovel”
“But That is Perhaps Why I Can Talk of Where I Want to Be without Always Being Dragged Back to My Starting Point”: Rethinking and Re(-)Membering Czech and Slovak Histories of Violence and Dissidence through the Historical “Infranovel”
Abstract In HHhH, a historical “infranovel” published in French in 2010 and translated into English in 2013, Laurent Binet’s conscious “otherness” to Central Europe, particularly Czech and Slovak cultures and histories, sets him “free to dream” of a different place/time and free to imagine as well as introduce ghosts of the obscure and unknown “subaltern” involved, thereby adding critical dimensions to the postmodernist rethinking and re(-)membering of the region’s histories of violence and dissidence.
From Fritz Lang’s 1943 film entitled Hangmen Also Die! to Lidice (2011), and from Jiří Weil’s Na střeše je Mendelssohn (Mendelssohn Is on the Roof ) to Alan Burgess’s Seven Men at Daybreak (1960) and Gerald Brennan’s Resistance (2012), Operation Anthropoid, as well as the merciless Nazi reprisals, one of the darkest chapters of Czech and Slovak histories of oppression and resistance, has been portrayed and recounted in a number of films and literary works. Though these cinematic and literary portrayals and adaptations of the assassination in Prague on 27 May 1942 of Reinhard Heydrich, Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, tend to be regarded as classic indisputable resources and references in their own right, I argue in this paper that the representation of histories of violence and dissent nevertheless remains and should remain problematic. The problem lies in the notion that such representation entails rearranging as well as manipulating narrative elements to tell a (hi)story, an act which is always subjected to the totalitarianism of what Jean-François Lyotard refers to as “grand narrative,” or “metanarrative”:
One of the fundamental attacks postmodernism subjects modernism to is on the latter’s belief in a “grand narrative.” It is a rejection of the idea that the ultimate truth associated with a grand narrative is possible and that the world as experienced is as a result of hidden structures. A grand narrative or metanarrative can also be understood as an ideology or paradigm; a system of thought and belief. (Du Toit 2011, 86) ← 165 | 166 →
In The Postmodern Condition (1979), where he revises the notion of knowledge and proposes the tenets of the postmodern aesthetic and intellectual movement, Lyotard (1985, xxiv) defines postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” He thus signals a break with modernism, which despite its subversive and experimental tendencies is nevertheless firmly based on the belief in the grand narrative. He writes,
What, then, is the postmodern? What place does it or does it not occupy in the vertiginous work of the questions hurled at the rules of image and narration? It is undoubtedly a part of the modern. All that has been received, if only yesterday (modo, modo, Petronius used to say), must be suspected. What space does Cézanne challenge? The Impressionists’. What object do Picasso and Braque attack? Cézanne’s. What presupposition does Duchamp break with in 1912? That which says one must make a painting, be it cubist. And Buren questions that other presupposition which he believes had survived untouched by the work of Duchamp: the place of presentation of the work. In an amazing acceleration, the generations precipitate themselves. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant. (Lyotard 1985, 79)
The narrative structure of a story, the order and manner in which a story is presented to readers, tends to reflect and uphold the authority of such “large-scale theories and philosophies of the world which, according to Lyotard, should be viewed with deep scepticism” (Du Toit 2011, 86). Such is “the crisis of narratives” which Lyotard (1985, xxiii) emphasises in his writing and which Fredric Jameson (1985, viii) explicates and expands to include what he refers to as the “crisis of representation” in his foreword to Lyotard’s seminal book. For Jameson (1985, viii), the “crisis of representation” stems from one’s tendency to uphold the supremacy of universal truth without questioning and one’s failure to see how belief in such “essentially realistic epistemology” (Jameson 1985, viii) leads one to think that representation is a faithful reproduction of truth, which lies in its entire essence outside subjectivity:
It is in terms of this crisis that the transition, in the history of form, from a novelistic “realism” of the Lukácsean variety to the various now classical “high” modernisms, has been described: the cognitive vocation of science would however seem even more disastrously impaired by the analogous shift from a representational to a nonrepresentational practice. (Jameson 1985, viii–ix)
Returning to Operation Anthropoid and its filmic and literary representations, the story of a Czech soldier and a Slovak soldier’s attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler’s prominent henchman (“the hangman” of Prague) and architect of the Final Solution of the Jewish question, which led to the Holocaust, seems simple enough to be (re)told and (re-)presented in its entirety. However, as Lyotard and ← 166 | 167 → Jameson point out, universal truth, along with the grand narrative which renders all events in human history representational, is a myth. In this paper, I propose that Laurent Binet’s novel entitled, HHhH, published in French in 2010 and translated into English in 2013, exposes the “nonrepresentational” aspects of history and reveals how a writer grapples with his/her authorial urge to impose order and recount the story as a whole to fit the scheme of metanarrative whilst struggling with the knowledge that such an urge can never do justice to the (hi)story. HHhH, as I shall demonstrate, offers alternative means and methods of narrating a (hi)story which Johanna Lindbladh (2003, 5) postulates in The Poetics of Memory in Post-Totalitarian Narration: “individual and collective memory is enigmatic, fragmentated, intimately connected to our senses and feelings, and thereby in need of an alternative epistemology, challenging traditional definitions of knowledge and truth.” By exposing the process of historical fiction writing, Binet draws attention to two aspects of dissent in his work. The first is dissent on the level of content—the story of Operation Anthropoid and its tragic ending. The second is dissent on the level of narrative form. Binet calls HHhH an “infranovel,” in which combination of journalism and fiction serves as an alternative genre to the traditional historical novel. Binet’s experimental tendency tangibly manifests in the novel’s structure. HHhH, containing no page numbers, is markedly divided into two hundred and fifty-seven random disproportionate sections. Why are these two levels of dissent important? I propose that, though the underlying causes of dissidence are found foremost in political protests and activism, one cannot deny the significance of the means and methods through which such causes, or political messages, are activated and communicated to the public. The study and analysis of literary works, through which one comes to investigate not only the content but also the stylistics of written words, provides a critical space where the fundamental concepts of political resistance and acts of dissent are questioned and revised.
At the level of content, it is undeniable that Operation Anthropoid was part of the Czechoslovak resistance movement and orchestrated by the Czech government in exile. However, the narrative of such an act of dissent cannot be recounted in one coherent metanarrative, as it is disputable whether the assassination of Heydrich yielded anything more than horrifying consequences, some of which are described on the dust jacket of Jan Wiener’s (1969) The Assassination of Heydrich:
The repercussions of Heydrich’s death shook the world. To Hitler, Heydrich was an “irreplaceable” SS chief. To the Czech people, he was a symbol of the terror and horror of the Nazi occupation. In reprisal, Hitler ordered a massive slaughter of the Czech “resistors” ← 167 | 168 → and totally demolished the small town of Lidice demanding that grass be planted where the town stood and that the name be erased from all maps.
Some historians have posited that the post-assassination retribution was far greater than the symbolic nationalist gesture brought about by Heydrich’s death. The villages of Lidice and Ležáky, for example, were razed to the ground as a result of false accusations. Their residents were terrorised and murdered:
On the morning of 10 June 1942 the SS shot Lidice’s entire male population and burned the village to the ground. Lidice’s women and those of its children who failed to meet “racial” criteria were deported to concentration camps… Two weeks later, the SS murdered all twenty-four adults in the village of Ležáky and similarly divided its children. (Frommer 2005, 19–20)
For the loss of Heydrich’s life, the Czech citizens paid the high price with the currency of their own lives: “In the wave of terror that followed Heydrich’s assassination, the Germans arrested 3,188 Czechs, sentenced 1,357 to death, and executed 679, most for having ‘approved the assassination.’ Hitler had initially called for 10,000 Czechs to be summarily shot…” (Frommer 2005, 20). Though Laurent Binet’s treatment of the subject of Nazi retribution does not undermine Operation Anthropoid as a symbolic act of resistance, HHhH nevertheless highlights the gravity of the incident’s repercussions:
The most appropriate tribute paid by the Nazis to Heydrich’s memory was not Hitler’s speech at his zealous servant’s funeral, but probably this: in July 1942 the programme to exterminate all Poland’s Jews began, with the opening of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Between July 1942 and October 1943, more than two million Jews and almost fifty thousand Romany will die as part of this programme. Its code name is Aktion Reinhard. (Binet 2013, Section 252)
Apart from Hitler’s horrifying tribute to Heydrich, an important event which followed Heydrich’s death renders Binet’s novel, as well as history, “unfinishable”:
My story is finished and my book should be, too, but I’m discovering that it’s impossible to be finished with a story like this. My father calls me to read out something he copied down at the Museum of Man in Paris, where he visited an exhibition on the recently deceased Germaine Tillion, an anthropologist and Resistance fighter who was sent to Ravensbrück. This is what the text said:
The vivisection experiments on 74 young female prisoners constitute one of Ravensbrück’s most sinister episodes. The experiments, conducted between August ’42 and August ’43, consisted of mutilating operations aimed at reproducing the injuries that caused the death of Reinhard Heydrich, the gauleiter of Czechoslovakia. Professor Gerhardt, having been unable to save Heydrich from a gaseous gangrene, wished to prove that the use of sulphonamides would have made no difference. So he deliberately infected the young women with viruses, and many of them died. (Binet 2013, Section 256) ← 168 | 169 →
Operation Anthropoid as an act of dissidence resists the authority of the realist grand narrative because the mission, though accomplished at the expense of the death of seven soldiers in an Eastern Orthodox church in Prague (where they were seeking refuge), triggered reprisals on a massive scale:
As far as the resistance strategy is concerned, the assassination of Heydrich was a classic example of an attack against a powerful enemy undertaken with inadequate forces and disastrous consequences. It showed how counterproductive violence can be, when it is employed in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Throughout the entire occupation period, the Czech underground and the exiles in London improvised in a vain search for the right strategy. Their failure makes evident the need for advance planning of underground resistance; such planning should be part of the national defense effort in peacetime. (Mastný 1971, 224)
From the chosen extracts, I propose that it is through literature, such as Binet’s HHhH, and through literary analysis, which is this paper’s methodology, that one can come to understand the “doubleness” of dissent. Like pharmakon, a Greek word which paradoxically means both “poison” and “antidote,” political resistance and acts of dissidence can be an antidote to social injustice but, at the same time, a poison that triggers and aggravates the violence of tyranny.
In the next section, I shall offer an overview of historical fiction and Binet’s dissidence towards the totalitarianism of grand narratives/metanarratives, the kind of totalitarianism which underpins not only the genre of historical fiction, but also the concept of history.
In his novel, Binet describes his preparatory work as a writer of historical fiction:
I also read lots of historical novels, to see how others deal with the genre’s constraints. Some are keen to demonstrate their extreme accuracy, others don’t bother, and a few manage skilfully to skirt around the historical truth without inventing too much. I am struck all the same by the fact that, in every case, fiction wins out over history. It’s logical, I suppose, but I have trouble getting my head around it. (Binet 2013, Section 11)
Binet’s dismay, caused by witnessing how other writers of historical fiction tend to be defeated by the unattainability of “accuracy” and “historical truth” in recounting and representing history, is also part and parcel of Lyotard’s “crisis of narratives” and Jameson’s “crisis of representation.” To better understand Binet’s struggle with such “constraints,” it might be useful to evoke Harry E. Shaw’s definitions of historical fiction in The Forms of Historical Fiction as a starting point:
The historical novel raises in an acute form a question common to all mimetic works of art—the relationship of the individual to the general, of particulars to universals. Such ← 169 | 170 → problems tend to remain submerged in most literary works. Several things bring them to the surface in the historical novel. Because historical novelists depict ages significantly different from their own and may aspire to represent the workings of historical process itself, they are faced with the task of creating characters that represent social groups and historical trends. But creating such characters involves certain inherent difficulties. This is a major reason for the problem with historical novels. (Shaw 1983, 30)
The crises of narratives and representation are inherent within the genre of historical fiction. HHhH’s title might seem to suggest that the novel’s main focus is on the life story of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi prototype par excellence: “ ‘HHhH,’ they say in the SS: Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich—Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” (Binet 2013, Section 108). Instead, Binet (2013, Section 88) intentionally puts Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the two parachutists assigned to assassinate Heydrich, on centre stage: “Whenever I talk about the book I’m writing, I say, ‘My book on Heydrich.’ But Heydrich is not supposed to be the main character.” Such a conscious choice aggravates the problem. It would have been easier to write a book about Heydrich, the cold-hearted villain, whose life and death have been extensively documented. Instead, the novel begins with a scene in which readers are immediately introduced to Jozef Gabčík, the Slovak parachutist involved in Operation Anthropoid whose Sten gun jammed at the moment of his close encounter with Reinhard Heydrich:
Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. (Binet 2013, Section 1)
Binet confesses in his novel that imagining how it was like to be Gabčík, the less-known hero of the two parachutists, is not an easy feat. His affirmation that the character “really did exist” (Binet 2013, Section 1), along with his insertion of the images of Prague in the present day into his depiction of Gabčík’s Prague in 1942, puts readers in medias res of the Operation Anthropoid story as well as of historical fiction in the making. Binet’s description of Gabčík also draws readers’ attention to the less-known anti-Nazi resistance movements and activities established and participated in by the people of Slovakia when their country became Nazi Germany’s satellite state under Josef Tiso.
I contend that it is through the stories of less-known heroes, or less-known characters of history, that one can come to imagine the nameless and, in some cases, faceless individuals who, despite their obscurity, can rightfully be regarded ← 170 | 171 → as movers and shakers of historical events. In the next section, I shall elaborate on my contention through a discussion of the subaltern in Binet’s HHhH.
One of the significant effects of Binet’s “re(-)presenting” the past, or situating the past in the present, is that readers are not only made consciously aware of the historical fiction genre’s devices and limitations, but also invited to question their own concepts and conceptualisation of history:
The problems historical novels have with history and we have with historical novels are potentially instructive. They can help to reveal limits in the esthetic forms we most prize—knowledge that matters for those who employ imaginative forms to make sense of the world. A clearer understanding of the workings of historical fiction can also clarify certain aspects of the nature of history itself, and of our situations as historical beings. (Shaw 1983, 9)
A more complacent writer might see no difficulty or dilemma in recounting the story of two men, a Czech and a Slovak, who parachuted down to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. A less thoughtful reader might not be moved by the incident, despite the fact that it took place not in the distant past but less than a hundred years ago. As a “historical being” himself, Binet does not make it a secret that he has difficulty conjuring the world of the past. Operation Anthropoid is clearly not a story which can be re(-)membered in and through a simple plot. The simplicity of the story is deceptive. Operation Anthropoid was a success; Heydrich later died of his injuries caused by Jan Kubiš (though only at the expense of subsequent tragic deaths of the parachutists, their colleagues, the people who helped and sheltered them, as well as other innocent people who perished to sate Hitler’s violent urges). This historical event involves many other characters, in fact; real people whose lives and the minute details which make up their existence are beyond the knowledge of the writer:
To begin with, this seemed a simple-enough story to tell. Two men have to kill a third man. They succeed, or not, and that’s the end or nearly. I thought of all the other people as mere ghosts who would glide elegantly across the tapestry of history. Ghosts have to be looked after, and that requires great care—I knew that. On the other hand, what I didn’t know (but should have guessed) is that a ghost desires only one thing: to live again. Personally, I’d like nothing better, but I am constrained by the needs of my story. I can’t keep leaving space for this ever-growing army of shadows, these ghosts who—perhaps to avenge themselves for the meager care I show them—are haunting me. (Binet 2013, Section 175)
The “ghosts” of the historical “subaltern” are those to whom Binet dedicates his novel. Here, I refer to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s definitions of the subaltern in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In this essay, Spivak asks whether or not marginalised ← 171 | 172 → people, who have been silenced by and confined within the oppressive language system of the elite, can truly express themselves (Spivak 2010, 37). The language and history of the subaltern are made up of fragmented heterogeneous voices, which find no precise outlet in the very vocabulary and power system that put them in the margins of society. Spivak argues that the subaltern cannot speak. Binet’s novel can be read as an attempt to make the subaltern speak—to resurrect or pay tribute to the obscure, even nameless and faceless, people who existed on the margins of history: “I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds those thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don’t speak of them” (Binet 2013, Section 251). To uncover the partially known is a challenging task, but to uncover the unknown is an impossible task:
I examine a map of Prague, marking the locations of the families who helped and sheltered the parachutists. Almost all of them paid with their lives—men, women, and children. The Svatoš family, a few feet from the Charles Bridge; the Ogoun family, near the castle; the Novak, Moravec, Zelenka, and Fafek families, all farther east. Each member of each of these families would deserve his or her own book—an account of their involvement with the Resistance until the tragic dénouement of Mauthausen. How many forgotten heroes sleep in history’s great cemetery? Thousands, millions of Fafeks and Moravecs, of Novaks and Zelenkas…
The dead are dead, and it makes no difference to them whether I pay homage to their deeds. But for us, the living, it does mean something. Memory is of no use to the remembered, only to those who remember. We build ourselves with memory and console ourselves with memory. No reader could possibly retain this list of names, so why write it? For you to remember them, I would have to turn them into characters. Unfair, but there you go. I know already that only the Moravecs, and perhaps the Fafeks, will find a place I my story. The Svatošes, the Novaks, the Zelenkas—not to mention all those whose names or existence I’m unaware of—will return to their oblivion. But in the end a name is just a name. I think of them all. I want to tell them. And if no one hears me, that doesn’t matter. Not to them, and not to me. One day, perhaps, someone in need to solace will write the story of the Novaks and the Svatošes, of the Zelenkas and the Fafeks. (Binet 2013, Section 150) ← 172 | 173 →
Binet also expresses his frustration as a historical fiction writer who is forced by the genre’s rules and constraints to rearrange the elements of history and fit them into the mould of one coherent story while seeking ways to do justice to history’s subaltern:
I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell this story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect—and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it—even higher and denser, like a creeping ivy—the unmappable pattern of causality. (Binet 2013, Section 150)
The “unmappable pattern of causality” (Binet 2013, Section 150), when it comes to the depiction of nameless and faceless people involved in and affected by Operation Anthropoid, becomes even more “unmappable” as Binet is consciously aware he is writing a historical novel (set in Prague, from the point of view of a French man living in the twentieth century). Binet, as a non-Czech and non-Slovak writer aspiring to (re-)present a landmark event in the Czechoslovak history of dissidence, feels that he can identify with the subaltern, whose names and heroic deeds are scarcely mentioned in history books let alone remembered by the public. Binet’s “outsider” status is further emphasised in his reference to Marjane Satrapi. In an interview, Satrapi highlights the notion that a writer’s own birthplace, as well as place of residence, justifies his/her authority and credibility to write about a certain place:
‘I adore Kundera, but the novel of his I love the least is the one set in Paris. Because he’s not truly in his element. As if he were wearing a very beautiful jacket that was just a little bit too big or a little bit too small for him [laughs]. But when Milos and Pavel are walking through Prague, I believe it totally.’
This is Marjane Satrapi, in an interview given to Les Inrockuptibles magazine to promote the release of her beautiful film, Persepolis. I feel a vague sense of anxiety as I read this. Flicking through the magazine in the apartment of a young woman, I confide my anxiety to her. ‘Yes, but you’ve been to Prague,’ she reassures me. ‘You’ve lived there, you love that city.’ But the same is true for Kundera and Paris…Will Marjane Satrapi sense that I didn’t grow up in Prague? … But does that mean she’ll think my story is happening in Paris, where I was born, and not in Prague, the city my whole being yearns for? Will there be images of Paris in her mind when I drive the Mercedes to Holešovice, near the Troie Bridge? (Binet 2013, Section 179)
According to Satrapi, Kundera is “not truly in his element” (Binet 2013, Section 179) when it comes to his depiction of Paris because he was born and grew up in Prague, not Paris. If the legitimacy and verisimilitude of a story depend solely upon the writer’s nationality, then it can be said that Binet (2013, Section 179) is also “not truly in his element” when it comes to his depiction of Prague because he was born and grew up in Paris, not Prague. Binet justifies his stance as a French writer recounting the story of a historical event set in Prague as follows:
Unlike Marjane Satrapi, Milan Kundera, Jan Kubiš, and Jozef Gabčík, I am not a political exile. But that is perhaps why I can talk of where I want to be without always being dragged back to my starting point. I don’t owe my homeland anything, and I don’t have a score to settle with it. For Paris, I feel neither the heartbreaking nostalgia nor the melancholy disenchantment of the great exiles. That is why I am free to dream of Prague. (Binet 2013, Section 179)
Binet refutes Satrapi’s theory by admitting that his visions of Prague are products of his dream, which is devoid of an exile’s nostalgic longing for home and political ← 173 | 174 → agenda. He also challenges Satrapi by declaring that he conjures up his visual and textual images of Prague from those presented by the media: “Prague in 1942 looks like a black-and-white photo. The passing men wear crumpled hats and dark suits, while the women wear those fitted skirts that make them all look like secretaries. I know this—I have the photos on my desk” (Binet 2013, Section 193). I argue that Binet’s statement here reflects dissidence not only towards the authority of linear and unifying metanarratives, but towards the authority of a writer’s place of birth over his/her writing as well. Binet’s conscious “otherness” to Central Europe, particularly Czech and Slovak cultures and histories, sets him “free to dream” of a different place/time and free to imagine as well as introduce ghosts of the obscure and unknown “subaltern” involved, thereby adding critical dimensions to the postcolonial rethinking and re(-)membering of the region’s histories of violence and dissidence.
Dissent on the level of HHhH’s narrative form can be seen manifested in Binet’s coinage of the term “infranovel”: “I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel” (Binet 2013, Section 205). Though he does not provide readers with a clear definition of what he means by that specific term, Binet leaves clues and hints from which it can be inferred. The Latin prefix “infra” means “below”. From the extracts which I have analysed in this paper, as well as the following one, we can see that Binet offers readers the many subnarratives which lie beneath or below the surface not only of his book, but of historical fiction as a genre. Note that the bottom-to-top metaphor which the prefix “infra” connotes subverts the omniscient gaze from top to bottom often imposed on an analysed object. As the attempt to tell a story can never escape the manipulation of the storyteller/writer, who sets out to reorder the sequence of events and weave the many strands of narrative into one coherent grand narrative, the recounting of history through words and texts, likewise, can never be objective. The literary (re-)presentation of historical events is done through a particular point of view in a particular time and place. History should therefore be read in relation to, as well as by taking into account, that particular time and space in which it is (re)told. One must avoid imposing fixity upon history. Instead of looking at history from above and treating it like chess pieces to be manoeuvred at will, one must, as the prefix “infra” in “infranovel” suggests, venture to understand history from below. A historical “infranovel” like Binet’s HHhH has the power to transform the god-like chess player into one of the chess pieces of history, imaginatively (re)living the events. A historical “infranovel” also puts into question the concept of language as neutral medium in historiography. ← 174 | 175 →
To this effect, Binet, like Hayden White in Metahistory, blurs the boundaries between history and fiction:
It is sometimes said that the aim of the historian is to explain the past by “finding,” “identifying,” or “uncovering” the “stories” that lie buried in chronicles; and that the difference between “history” and “fiction” resides in the fact that the historian “finds” his stories, whereas the fiction writer “invents” his. This conception of the historian’s task, however, obscures the extent to which “invention” also plays a part in the historian’s operations. (White 1975, 6–7)
By outlining and acknowledging the processes and limitations of historical fiction writing, Binet exposes how historical fiction writers, historical film producers, and even historians treat history as a narrative prose discourse that classifies and regulates past events in order to establish and re(-)present them as models or as coherent grand narratives. The following extract is an example of the ways in which Binet’s “infranovel” uncovers the process and techniques of historiography and historical fiction writing, as well as the underlying concepts of history “below” the texts one reads. Here, readers encounter a dialogue between young Heydrich and his father:
‘Why is there a war, Father?’
‘Because France and England are jealous of Germany, my son.’
‘Why are they jealous?’
‘Because the Germans are stronger than they are.’ (Binet 2013, Section 14)
There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue—reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history. In stylistic terms, this process has certain similarities which hypotyposis, which means making a scene so lifelike that it gives the reader the impression he can see it with his own eyes. When a writer tries to bring a conversation back to life in this way, the result is often contrived and the effect the opposite of that desired: you see too clearly the strings controlling the puppets, you hear too distinctly the author’s voice in the mouths of these historical figures. (Binet 2013, Section 15)
The invented dialogue is immediately followed by Binet’s own commentary, in which he points out the absurdity of a writer’s extreme quest for verisimilitude. HHhH as a historical “infranovel” is a book which critiques itself, dissecting the creative process and reading experience in meticulous detail. In re(-)membering, or commemorating and reinventing in fiction form, this history of dissent, Binet chooses to avoid the authorial pretension found in history textbooks: “But I’ve said that I don’t want to write a historical handbook. This story is personal. That’s why my visions sometimes get mixed up with the known facts. It’s just how it is” (Binet 2013, Section 91). He also chooses to avoid the extreme “life-like” rhetoric of hypotyposis: “inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom ← 175 | 176 → I’ve discussed all this: It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence” (Binet 2013, Section 192). HHhH as a historical infranovel therefore becomes part of the history of dissidence as it seeks to revolutionise the genre of historical writing and mainstream conceptualisation of history. In Lyotard’s (1985, xxv) words, “invention is always born of dissension. Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Its principle is not the expert’s homology, but the inventor’s paralogy.” Binet’s invented genre of “infranovel” aggravates his anti-grand narrative stance. In a historical “infranovel,” the writer’s life becomes closely entwined with the lives of the obscure, or the subaltern, in history as well as the less obscure people, such as the key players involved in Operation Anthropoid. However, Binet is also aware of the dangers of overstylised representation of history, particularly historical figures like Reinhard Heydrich:
It is obviously impossible that I—son of a Jewish mother and a Communist father, brought up on the republican values of the most progressive French petite bourgeoisie and immersed through my literary studies in the humanism of Montaigne and the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the Surrealist revolution and the Existentialist worldview—could ever be tempted to ‘sympathize’ with anything to do with Nazism, in any shape or form.
But I must, once more, bow down before the limitless and nefarious power of literature. Because this dream proves beyond doubt that, with his larger-than-life, storybook aura, Heydrich impresses me. (Binet 2013, Section 41)
Literary devices can add allure even to one of the vilest villains in history. Though he knows full well that Heydrich as a historical figure should by all means be condemned for the crimes he committed against humanity, Binet is nevertheless impressed by the larger-than-life character into which his writing has transformed Heydrich. What is to be inferred from this? I propose the following: like history, literature should be handled with caution and with a critical mind. As Binet demonstrates in the above passage, the pharmakon that is literature possesses the power to render heroic even one of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen, who not only orchestrated the Final Solution, sending around six million Jews to their death, but also gave out orders for the staging of the Gleiwitz incident on 31 August, 1939, a staged attack by Nazi forces posing as Poles against the German radio station in Gleiwitz.1 ← 176 | 177 →
Though HHhH as a historical “infranovel” is not a direct treatment of the history of Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, it nevertheless suggests that the history of Nazi occupation is far from being the final ending of the region’s historical narrative. The history of the Nazi regime and anti-Nazi resistance in Czechoslovakia recounted in HHhH can be read as the Derridean trace and spectre of Central Europe’s uncanny past’s future, which was to come after the end of the Second World War, namely the Soviet regime and anti-Soviet resistance in Czechoslovakia. I argue that when one treats history as an open-ended story, or as a foreshadowing of events to come, one can see the traces of future regimes and spectres of political ideologies to rebel against: the Soviet regime and totalitarianism. To wit, Derrida’s definition of the “trace”:
[I]f the trace refers to an absolute past, it is because it obliges us to think a past that can no longer be understood in the form of a modified presence, as a present-past. Since past has always signified present-past, the absolute past that is retained in the trace no longer rigorously merits the name “past.” … With the same precaution and under the same erasure, it may be said that its passivity is also its relationship with the “future.” The concepts of present, past, and future, everything in the concepts of time and history which implies evidence of them—the metaphysical concept of time in general—cannot adequately describe the structure of the trace. (Derrida 1997, 66–67)
There is no hard evidence which accounts for the existence of trace. However, it can be said that trace is a presence of the absence of concrete evidence of the past. By evoking Wilhelm Keitel’s statement in one of the Nuremberg trial sessions in 1946, Binet evokes in the readers’ minds the near future-of-the-past Soviet regime which would later subject the region of Czechoslovakia under its power:
In 1946, at Nuremberg, the representative for Czechoslovakia will ask Keitel, the German chief of staff: ‘Would the Reich have attacked Czechoslovakia in 1938 if the Western powers had supported Prague? To which Keitel will reply: ‘Definitely not. Militarily, we weren’t strong enough.’
Hitler can curse all he likes. The truth is that France and Britain opened a door to which he did not have the key. And, obviously, by displaying such servility, encouraged him to start again. (Binet 2013, Section 74)
In the totalitarian poker arena, both the Nazi regime and the Soviet regime struggle to win the pot and maintain their authority by means of pure bluffing, or by means of creating illusions and propagandas which will make their opponents fold. Even the Soviet soldiers were subjected to blinding propaganda and came to call the bluff only when they reached Eastern Europe and saw the wealth of the region with their own eyes: ← 177 | 178 →
In part, the Soviet soldiers seemed foreign to East Europeans because they seemed so suspicious of Eastern Europeans, and because they appeared so shocked by the material wealth of Eastern Europe. Since the time of the revolution, Russians had been told of the poverty, unemployment and misery of capitalism, and about the superiority of their own system. But even upon entering eastern Poland, at that time one of the poorest parts of Europe, they found ordinary peasants who owned several chickens, a couple of cows and more than one change of clothes. They found small country towns with stone churches, cobbled streets and people riding bicycles, which were then still unknown in most of Russia. They found farms equipped with solid barns, and crops planted in neat rows. These were scenes of abundance by comparison with the desperate poverty, the muddy roads and the tiny wooden cottages of rural Russia. (Applebaum 2012, 26–27)
The Derridean trace of absolute past always haunts the present. Once again, particularly after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw pact countries in 1968, the whole world would prove itself to be ignorant of what was happening behind the iron curtain: “Chamberlain declares: ‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’ ” (Binet 2013, Section 63). The betrayal of Czechoslovakia by England and France, which led to the Munich Treaty, for example, has left its trace upon the world population whose lives were affected by the Cold War. The victimisation of Czechoslovakia remains an inerasable trace in history.
Returning to the concept of the “spectre,” Derrida explains: “As in Hamlet, the Prince of a rotten State, everything begins by the apparition of a spectre. More precisely by the waiting for this apparition. The anticipation is at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing (‘this thing’) will end up coming” (Derrida 2006, 2). Binet’s HHhH foreshadows or “awaits” the apparition of power shifts which would eventually, and most symbolically, take place at the Prague Castle. In the time of the Nazi occupation, the newly crowned king was Heydrich. Likewise, in the time of the Soviet occupation, the castle became the seat of the Communist head of state. Power changes hands, but the spectre of the “trappings of power” remains:
There is no proof that Heydrich really did put the crown on his head. I think people wanted to believe this story because it suggested, retrospectively, an act of hubris that could not go unpunished. But I doubt whether Heydrich suddenly believed himself to be in the middle of a Wagnerian opera. As evidence, I offer the fact that Heydrich handed three of the seven keys back to Hácha: a show of friendship designed to give the illusion that the Germans were prepared to share the government of the country with the Czechs. An empty symbolic gesture, to be sure, but the halfhearted nature of this exchange means that the scene loses its potential outrageousness. ← 178 | 179 →
I don’t believe he put the crown on his head, because we’re not in a Charlie Chaplin film, but I’m equally sure that he did pick up the sceptre—to weigh it casually in his hand. A less demonstrative gesture, but symbolic all the same. And Heydrich, though pragmatic, also had a pronounced taste for the trappings of power. (Binet 2013, Section 133)
The spectre of historical anticipation can be found in Binet’s depiction and representation of Edvard Beneš’s musings. The Czechoslovak independence movement sought to balance out the power of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, appeasing them equally, to save the fate of a small and powerless country:
With anthropoid, Beneš is attempting a great coup to impress these two European giants. London has given logistical backing and collaborated closely. But Beneš has to be careful not to offend the Russians’ pride: that’s why he has decided to inform Moscow of the launch of the operation. So the pressure is now at its height: Churchill and Stalin are waiting. The future of Czechoslovakia is in their hands; best not disappoint them. Above all, if it’s the Red Army that liberates his country, Beneš wants Stalin to regard him as a credible representative—all the more so given his fears of the Czech Communists’ influence. (Binet 2013, Section 140)
In my view, Laurent Binet’s “infranovel” might at first blush promise to deliver a story of Operation Anthropoid with Reinhard Heydrich, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš as main characters. However, as readers are taken to the “infra” level of the text, HHhH is more a novel about a novel based on history. By revealing the techniques of historical fiction writing, a writer’s dilemma and anxiety in preparing for and in writing this book, Binet successfully takes part in the history of dissidence. His work reflects a postmodern resistance against grand narratives or metanarratives as well as against mainstream conceptualisations of history, journalism, and fiction writing:
Everyone finds it normal, fudging reality to make a screenplay more dramatic, or adding coherence to the narrative of a character whose real path probably included too many random ups and downs, insufficiently loaded with significance. It’s because of people like that forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories, that an old friend, familiar with all these fictional genres and therefore fatally accustomed to these processes of glib falsification, can say to me in innocent surprise: ‘oh, really, it’s not invented?’
No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism? (Binet 2013, Section 40)
The historical “infranovel” that is Laurent Binet’s HHhH can be read as a necessary metafictional “invention,” which, through its conscious fictionality based on facts and the writer’s life, sheds light not only on the concept of history and ← 179 | 180 → historical writing, but also on the politics and “doubleness” of dissidence. Dissidence, like literature itself, can be read as Plato’s “pharmakon” in Phaedrus—the poison of as well as the antidote to violence. Depending on interpretation and allocation of meaning, an act of dissident can be seen simultaneously as both an act of violence and an act against violence. Though Operation Anthropoid was part of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile’s attempt to fight against the Nazi regime, it was nevertheless an assassination operation which poisonously bred many more acts of violence. It is only through re(-)membering, as in recounting (hi)story and assembling the fragments of lives lived and lost, as well as regained in fiction, that an act of dissidence becomes a healing “pharmakon”—an antidote against the violence of collective oblivion. A literary revision and re-evaluation of dissent propels readers to imagine and, through imagining, render justice to the subaltern—who are the silent/silenced movers and shakers of the past, of which consequences are relevant to the present day and even to the future. To rethink history and the history of dissidence in a particular time and place—to engage it critically—leads to the revelation that history, as well as literature, belongs to everyone. Though Laurent Binet struggles with the thought that he is writing from the point of view of the excluded “other,” who is not directly related to Czechoslovakia and Operation Anthropoid, his historical “infranovel” nevertheless reveals that he, as well as readers of his book, is inevitably both a spectator of and a participant in the haunting trace and spectre of history. The stone of dissidence, which had been cast into a pond a long time ago, sent out ripples of unexpected consequence across oceans. The intimate bond between the writer, the semi-real-life characters who left their concrete legacies, and those who could only leave small imprints on the mud of constant change establishes and fortifies the hopeful notion that political resistance and acts of dissidence are not only transnational, but also transtemporal. Operation Anthropoid is an incident which still bears resonance in the twenty-first century. This (hi)story of defiance, along with its dire consequence, has transcended the spectre that was Czechoslovakia (a state non-existent in the present day). It has travelled beyond Central Europe to the rest of the world.
This is for everyone to re(-)member.
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1 According to the caption of a photo of Hitler holding “photographic proof” of the “attack by Polish bandits” on the back cover Edouard Calic’s Reinhard Heydrich, this “was used as a pretext for the German invasion of Poland, which triggered World War II” (Calic 1985).