Laurent Binet is among the most successful French writers of his generation. His latest novel earned instant acclaim with two important prizes in 2015. In 2010 HHhH was awarded the accolade of the Goncourt Prize for his first novel published in multilingual translation. However, reception varies from one country to the next.
The French press reacted enthusiastically to Laurent Binet’s most recent novel La Septième Fonction du langage (The Seventh Function of Language) – “a crazy thriller” gushed the Figaro, in which the icons of “French theory” play the leading role: Foucault, Deleuze, and of course Roland Barthes. In this novel, Barthes is murdered because he is in possession of a hotly coveted document about the ‘seventh function of language’ that enables anybody to do anything, no matter when. The respectless and humourous treatment of France’s intellectual grandees gifted Binet the Fnac Prize for Fiction and the Prix Interallié.
The 43-year-old former French teacher already succeeded with his debut HHhH with a great project. With the accolade of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, it was translated into German, Spanish, American and British English. Undoubtedly, the story and title are skilfully chosen: “Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich” (“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”) is the full version of the abbreviated title HHhH. This is a novel about the assassination attempt on the SS security chief, Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague in 1942. A novel about the assassination attempt by two Czech resistance fighters on the SS security chief, Reinhard Heydrich, in Prague in 1942. During a visit to the Czech capital, Binet stumbled across this story and immediately decided to write about it. “After Jonathan Littel with The Kindly Ones […] and Yannick Haenel’s Jan Karski, yet another Frenchman aged about forty – Laurent Binet – has attempted […] to characterize Germany’s violent history of the 20th century in a novel in order to understand it”, is the attempt in the Frankfurter Rundschau to make a trend out of this.
In fact, in the precisely researched book the focus is not only on Nazi history, but also the author himself who initiates the reader into his doubts about the veracity of the material and the appropriate way to deal with it. And it is precisely this narrative stance which divides opinions: for the French magazine Télérama this is how “ethical and aesthetic questions” are connected, which doesn’t burden the plot, but makes it more intelligent.
El Pais also holds the view that the many “different temperaments during the writing process” are “the actual new aspect of this magnificent novel.”
On the other hand, The Guardian is sceptical about whether the “corpse-strewn story of Heydrich” is actually embellished by Binet’s “struggles over whether to invent the dialogue or imagine the inner feelings of his real-life characters.”
And the German-speaking critics reacted with irritation and at times almost allergically to Binet’s novel. A “great disappointment” was the verdict of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, for “the only chance that a novel about Heydrich might have would be to find a convincing narrative position. The narrator would have to have a powerful voice, yet to remain invisible. […] Instead, a coquettish ego blows itself up here. There are incessant repetitions ‘I cannot say any more about it’, ‘I am ashamed’ – yet naturally he instantly excuses himself from everything […] because we should respect this book as work in progress, primarily as his story.”
Nor was the FAZ convinced by Binet’s “poetological superstructure”: “A well disposed postmodern critique can naturally justify these constant interventions as ‘metafictional’ reflections. However, their pretentious tone puts the impartial reader through a hard test. […] Binet dreams himself into the role of the eyewitness, indeed almost the co-resistance fighter.”
For the Neue Zürcher Zeitung this strategy is also unsuccessful: Binet’s “childish identification” with the resistance fighters made it difficult to take him seriously, according to the newspaper.
The case of Binet makes it clear how sensitive the treatment of German history still is. It will be intriguing to see how the foreign reception will respond to the dismantling of great French intellectuals from the 1970s.
By Katja Petrovic
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright
This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 18 January 2016.