Recently my partner and I have been watching the PBS series The Mind of a Chef with David Chang, known as the owner of momofuku in New York and founder of the incredible food journal Lucky Peach. The Mind of a Chef is one of those ridiculous food shows where all the ‘simple’ recipes are more complicated than anything you’d ever cook, but hey, the food looks amazing and they go to some great places. In episode seven, David Chang visits a sushi restaurant where a husband and wife make nothing but sushi in a restaurant that seats six people at a time: they scale everything back so they can focus on making the absolute best sushi, every day. After watching Chang make Yakitori Chicken earlier in the episode by de-boning, smoking, confiting and then marinating and frying chicken wings, it was so incredibly refreshing to see him eat a perfectly prepared piece of sushi, throw his hands up in the air and say “I give up”.
And that is pretty much how I felt 20 pages in to HHhH: I knew I was in the hands of a master. I literally threw the book down on the couch and thought ‘wow’. To be so early on in a book and know that this was someone doing something special, with extraordinary imagination, and doing it with great skill, it is a rare gift. David Chang will keep cooking, but he knows that he won’t make sushi like they did in that restaurant in Tokyo. I will keep reading, I will keep writing, but I will know that I will never write historical fiction like Laurent Binet so what’s the point of even trying. Basically what I’m saying is: read this book.
HHhH is based on Operation Anthropoid – an exercise by two Czechoslovakian parachutists to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. Chief of the Nazi secret service, Heydrich was a star of the Third Reich and an extraordinarily brutal man who oversaw the murder of millions as one of the main architects of the Holocaust. As Binet writes:
“Almost anywhere you look in the politics of the Third Reich, and particularly among its most terrifying aspects, Heydrich is there – at the centre of everything”.
Despite Heydrich’s close alliance with Hitler and ambitious rising through the ranks, he still answered to Himmler, but those in the SS would say ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’ which in German reads ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich’, or HHhH.
What makes HHhH an extraordinary novel is not the story itself, but the telling. Binet has an incredible imagination, which is followed through with strong technique. His writing style in this book will be incredibly difficult to follow up, but it is to be treasured in HHhH, his debut novel. Binet has managed to write a historical fiction novel that parodies historical fiction, without making it any less sincere. He has written a book about one of the world’s greatest monsters and has done so with incredible humour and light. He does this by bringing his voice into the novel regularly as a commentary both on the characters and history, but also on his own process. He talks about the overwhelming amout of research required and his inability to at first process “the vastness of the information” he acquires. He speaks regularly about the flaws of the genre: should the author stay true to the facts and give a true historical account that will likely be boring, or should they indulge and focus on the story, making light of the history they are relying on? Binet gives us accounts of his research materials as examples, such as here where he speaks about David Chacko’s Like A Man:
“In other words, Chacko wanted to write a novel – well researched, admittedly, but without being a slave to the facts. So he bases his tale on a true story, fully exploiting its novelistic elements, blithely inventing when that helps the narration, but without being answerable to history. He’s a skilful cheat. A trickster. Well… a novelist basically”.
Shortly after, Binet describes a scene where the two parachutists meet, in a classic historical fiction style, where the characters speak in conversation, as if the novelist is privy to every word they spoke between them. This is immediately countered by Binet’s commentary:
“This scene is not really useful, and on top of that I practically made it up. I don’t think I’m going to keep it”.
This technique and this humour cannot exist without the main story to frame it, but it was what I craved. I just wanted more and more of it, to the point where the ‘actual story’ paled into comparison and I wanted to skip past it. It is Binet’s ultimate trick and it is genius.
The humour is slightly disorientating: people would see me reading a book with a picture of a Nazi on the cover and hear me laughing out loud on the train. Who knows what they thought of this strange girl. The book is also printed without page numbers – the only delineation are the numbered chapters, some of which are several pages, some of which are only a few sentences. It made me realise how much I rely on the crux of page numbers usually to track my progress within a book and I found it quite disorientating reading without them. But this is a great metaphor for the whole experience of reading HHhH. What of the story is reality and what is fiction? What is Binet and what is Heydrich? Why am I laughing at a book about a war criminal? Why do I feel such incredible affection for a book with a picture of a Nazi on the front cover? But I do. I don’t re-read books often if at all, but I am already looking forward to picking this book up again one day and experiencing it all over. I will happily push this book into the hands of any of my friends who are yet to read it. It is historical fiction with an incredibly contemporary edge. It is clever, funny, intelligent, warm and ridiculous and I absolutely loved it.
After my despondency at the hands of Binet’s genius, my ego needed redemption. I turned to something for some reason I’m good at: I made jam. It has only been recently that I’ve started making jams from scratch. I watched my Mum do it as a child, I watched my Grandma do it, but I had never attempted it. Fed up with overly sweet jams and marmalades and with too much free time, I gave it a shot. Making your own jam has this wonderful meditative quality to it: usually when I cook anything savoury I’m terrible at following a recipe. I use it as a guide only and then I bring in my own ideas and ingredients. But baking or making jam forces you to follow a recipe – there’s too much that can go wrong by free-forming it. So I made the lemon curd from this Cannelle et Vanille recipe. It is incredibly tart and strongly flavoured: just how I like my citrus, well, everything. It is smooth and luscious but packs a big punch of flavour.
Here the curd is served with Green Kitchen Stories’ Fat Almond Pancake. My partner and I have been eating pancakes as a regular weekend treat of late, so this idea (and a hilarious name) made me curious: instead of making lots of pancakes in a frying pan, baking a large one to share. This Swedish childhood favourite (ugnspannkaka) is different from an English style pancake – the very thin batter is poured into a hot baking tray in a similar style to making Yorkshire Pudding, but the resulting consistency is more like a soufflé, making it more like a pudding when served. I love the idea of baking this for breakfast on a weekend and having leftovers for a weeknight treat. There’s also plenty of room to experiment with different additions and toppings, both sweet and savoury here. Who knows, you might come across something special in the process.
I loved this article that I came across on Twitter during the week via Text Publishing - The Not So Horrible Consequences of Reading Banned Books. A new study shows that kids who read books on banned reading lists not only suffer no harm, but actually it "prompt(s) readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or—better yet—to discuss them with parents or teachers". And here is evidence of it in action: when an American school tries to ban Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, one student emails the author to let him know. Here is Diaz's reply, posted by the student.