Tuesday, August 21, 2012

History ("HHhH" by Laurent Binet)

When you read a lot of nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction, you begin to notice certain patterns in the writing. Often, these books will open not with the most obvious or approrpriate moment--the subject's birth, say, or the triggering of a titular event--but rather a seemingly insignificant one that, in the writer's own warped logic, somehow embodies all that follows. Or, more perversely, the writer may choose to begin at the end--the subject's death, usually marked by a long and somber funeral procession on a gray and dreary day*; the signing of a treaty or unveiling of a memorial; the daily lives and pristine, ghost-like nightmares of the survivors decades after the fact. At some point, this need to be both factual and literary, the need to convey dry information balanced with the desire to tell an engaging story, becomes tiresome, especially when the author's skills in either research or creative writing are lacking...or, perhaps worse, overpowering.

The subject of Laurent Binet's HHhH promises to be a thrilling read from the outset: the planned assassination of Richard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi official, by a handful of European military officers and everymen...a plan that, as is often the case, falls apart almost from the get-go. But it's immediately clear that Binet's focus on delivering this obscure, enthralling story is matched only by his obsession with how to do it properly....and that is where HHhH gets its magic. Yes, the story of the Heydrich assassination is spread out in fantastic detail, but it's Binet's deconstruction of this process--and simultaneous critique of himself as writer--that makes this pseudo-novel such a rewarding and worthwhile read. Binet worries that he's slipping into cliche, that pieces of his own life are slowly going to influence how he fills in the story's gaps; in one chapter, Binet frets that the cold he is suffering through will somehow find its way into a character's own system and make him ill, as well. On the surface, it's an interesting and unusual way to tell a story; beneath the surface, however, Binet's style speaks to the unwritten agreement between writers of nonfiction and their readers that everything put down on the page will be truthful, researched, and clear. It's an agreement that, more and more frequently, is being violated by the men and women we trust with telling our history.

By breaking down his process and being honest with his thoughts as a writer, Binet is highlighting the human failings that could--and often do--sneak their way into the books we read. We trust that writers like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Edmund Morris are reliable sources of history because all the tell-tale signs are present in their works: their stories are clean of judgement and opinion, their writing is lucid and professional, and their bibliographies are repositories of hundreds if not thousands of first- and second-hand sources that, to our eyes, seem legitimate. But how many of us become detectives as we read those books, stopping every few sentences to double-check that their sources are real, that the information is factual, that interpretation and opinion have not replaced statement and fact? Few, if any. And writers of nonfiction seem to know this, for at least once a year some established writer will have to issue public apologies and sometimes even resign from prestigious positions--at universities, at journals, at websites--because they've broken the agreement and called into question the faith we put in keepers of our history.** It's an event that, besides providing fodder for pundits, challenges those writers who revere the relationship between writer and reader to keep that very relationship strong and defend themselves against whispers that perhaps they too have broken the agreement.

There was a moment after finishing HHhH that I wondered if perhaps Binet was doing a disservice to history; after all, there are few if any good books out there about the Heydrich assassination, so wouldn't Binet have done us all a great favor by writing a straightforward account of those events? Binet obviously did his research well, knows how to construct a fluid narrative filled with suspense and intrigue, and understands the nuances of writing historical nonfiction when history itself ends up being incomplete or unwritten. Why not just write a nice, 200-page retelling of what happened instead of a treatise on modern nonfiction itself? It's a legitimate question, and one that bothered me for some time...but the longer Binet's book sits with you, the more you understand that the only way we can trust our history is by trusting those who write it. And by opening the curtains on his writing process--not to mention opening himself to the same kind of scrutiny that will be bestowed on his subjects--Binet is hoping to gain out trust so that we will revel in history without the fear of being lied to by the person telling it.

*Heavy rain is optional in instances such as these; chances are, your readers will not be motivated enough to scour old newspaper reports of that day's actual weather, so maudlin little touches such as these usually lend themselves well symbolically.

**One book mentioned by Binet is Comer Clarke's England Under Hitler, an obscure, out-of-print pseudo-historical book that looks to understand Hitler's plans for England through interviews with some of the men tasked with writing up those plans. It's a fascinating topic, but in Clarke's hands it becomes an excuse to make heavy-handed literature out of history by imagining conversations between historical figures. It's a ridiculous book, and it's rareness is a benefit to readers and history buffs alike.