Death in Amsterdam, murder in Manhattan

In his hatchet job on The Goldfinch, Peter Kemp puts Donna Tartt’s success down to a “winning formula”: all three of her books open with a murder. According to Kemp, Tartt’s latest begins with a murder in Manhattan, but what he misses is the real homicidal opener – death in Amsterdam. While Manhattan may be the story’s catalyst, Amsterdam is certainly the book’s climax. It is easy to forget this as these opening pages are the only moment at which the story deviates from an otherwise linear structure; the act of violence is also secondary to protagonist Theo Decker’s inward reflections, buried in the headline “Onopgeloste moord. Onbekende”.

The Goldfinch is named for Carel Fabritius’s 1654 painting, which is permanently housed in the Royal Picture Gallery of The Hague, but which temporarily formed part of The Frick Collection in New York to coincide with the release of the book. It is written fourteen years after Theo’s mother, Audrey Decker (who is “as glossy and nervy and stylish as a racehorse”), is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Theo blames himself for her death, as their trip to the Met was indirectly the result of his suspension from school. Audrey’s death echoes Fabritius’s own – he was a victim of the explosion of a gunpowder store in Delft in 1654.

Part of a fictional collection at the Met is Fabritius’s painting, the first painting Audrey’s “ever really loved”. It immediately reminds Theo of his mother: “something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself — its brightness, its alert watchful expression—made me think of pictures I’d seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.” And after the explosion, when Theo makes off with the painting at the insistence of a dying old man, it becomes his only connection to his mother. The small, unassuming work of art becomes the book’s centerpiece, at times weighing down the narrative to the point of frustration. Most disappointing, then, is Tartt’s resulting reliance on the trope of the ultimately redemptive power of art.

The Goldfinch is Tartt’s third novel, and her first in 11 years, which means that her fans have waited even longer for this book than they did for The Little Friend.

Though Kemp’s inevitably witty and slating review, a necessary requirement for a Hatchet Job of the Year shortlisting, concludes that “The Goldfinch is a turkey”, the book has also received widespread acclaim. Its mixed reception has been itself the subject of articles, most notably Evgenia Peretz’s piece in the July issue of Vanity Fair. We are forced to ask whether the book’s praise comes as a result of being long-awaited (fans will not let themselves be disappointed), or whether the book is noteworthy in its own right.

Significantly, while The Secret History, Tartt’s far better work received not a single award, The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in April this year, was shortlisted for two more minor awards (the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction), and was selected as Amazon’s Best Book of the Year 2013.

The Goldfinch lies somewhere between 1992’s The Secret History and 2002’s The Little Friend, which means that fans of either or both shouldn’t be too disappointed. What links the three books is an unsettling secrecy – a sense that we are not being told everything; the opposite of dramatic irony, if you will.

While the book has been widely described as Dickensian – indeed, the craftsman James Hobart (“Hobie”), who takes in the “orphaned” Theo, can be read as a version of Joe Gargery – it lacks Dickens’ humour and eccentricity; her caricatures pale in comparison.

Where the book succeeds, much like The Secret History, is in the depiction of the kinds of friendships we all long for – those indescribably close connections formed out of loneliness, being taken in, being part of something, sharing secrets. In The Goldfinch, it is difficult not to envy the relationship between Theo and Russian teenager Boris Pavlikovsky, despite the absurdity of its trajectory. Their rebellious adventures make Theo more of a Holden Caulfield than, say, a Pip or an Oliver.

Despite being criticised for the implausibility of Theo’s story, we get the sense that Tartt is aware of it – she begins the book with a quote by Albert Camus: “The absurd does not liberate; it binds.” And it is the book’s madness that binds Theo and Boris and, in many ways, endears us to Tartt who lives a similar, admirable absurdity.

The Goldfinch is published by Little, Brown and is available from Kalahari.com.

Turning a blind eye

WORDS BY SOPHY KOHLER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARETH SMIT

Snowdrops, the debut novel of British author and journalist A.D. Miller, was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2011. The book is a portrait of a morally-compromised post-Soviet Moscow but, more significantly, it is a character sketch of Nick Platt, an English lawyer living and working in the city, who is seduced by the cold and enigmatic Masha, and chooses to turn a blind eye to a world of lies.

Did you ever think about writing a non-fiction account of your time in Russia?

There are a lot of journalists who write books about Moscow and Russia. I didn’t really feel that I had anything to add. I’m not a great expert on Russia; I tried my best to be a good correspondent. The thing about Russia is there’s a lot about it that is difficult to write about, factually and in general. This is true of all places, actually, but maybe particularly true in a place where there’s such a gap between reality and surface, in the sense that it’s a very opaque place in which even the most dramatic public events are often incredibly difficult to fathom. One of the first articles I wrote in Moscow was about a guy discovering a corpse and the struggle to identify who this corpse was, whether it was the person he said it was. Actually it wasn’t, because the guy was six inches shorter than the corpse.

Russia is a murky place, where it’s hard to get to the bottom of things. Something terrible happened just as I arrived in Moscow – the Beslan school shooting, where terrorists took over that school in southern Russia and shot several hundred people, mostly children. Pretty clear what happened, though? Well, no. It’s clear that terrorists took over the school and committed appalling acts of terrorism, of murder. But how many were there, how did they get there, how did they get the weapons there, how did they cross the internal borders that they needed to to get there, why did the hostage-taking end in a siege, who shot first, why did the Russian armed forces behave as they did? None of these questions have ever been satisfactorily answered, because the government’s decided that they shouldn’t be answered.

It’s a difficult place to write about with any sense of certainty that you’re getting it right and it’s often difficult to prove things, so you end up writing about things euphemistically. In this book – which is, of course, a book about people and not about Putin or terrorists – I was trying to write about some aspects of life in Russia that are more difficult to write about in non-fiction.

Have you been criticised for writing about Russia as an outsider?

A bit, but I was a journalist there for a few years and I used to get it every week. When you wrap up an article, someone will write to you and say, “Who the hell are you?”. I’m used to that. Some Russians have that view to which, I guess, there are a few responses. The foreigners in this book are just as culpable and as morally compromised as the Russians, so this isn’t a question of one nationality being morally superior to another; in the end the book’s about Nick more than it’s about Russia. It is a character study about this one ordinary-seeming individual and what happens to him and how he describes it – the book is told in his voice, not in the writer’s voice; it’s his grammar and cultural references, his illusions and opinions about Russia but also about women, which are offered to the reader for their judgment. He is the ultimate subject.

Do you think that for Nick, Russia is a place where the rules of society, the rules of ordinary living, are suspended – he can behave a bit differently, let himself go a bit?

I think the rules are different in Russia. But Nick is in a different situation because, like a lot of expats, he behaves as if he’s on holiday and as if his actions don’t really have consequences. He behaves as if the people and the things around him are not real, as though somehow he’s in a kind of theme park. And that’s how a lot of expats behave – in Moscow and elsewhere. But also he’s in a place where he’s not known, where he can be whoever he wants to be; economically he has more status and power than he might in London, and he has opportunities among women that he wouldn’t have had in London. So, for him, it’s a sort of liberating environment, both morally and practically.

He is also just one in a long line of much more distinguished expat protagonists – expat novels are good and useful devices to test moral presumptions. This is what Graham Greene was interested in in many of his novels – what happens when you transplant someone to a different environment where the usual constraints and rules don’t apply to them, would they turn out to be better or worse than they expected, better or worse or the same as natives? So I guess it’s a sub-genre in itself that, using protagonists to ask these kinds of moral questions.

Is Nick in any way a version of yourself?

There’s another novelist called Andrew Miller, a bit more established than me, so I decided to retreat into the initials “A. D.”. He has a Facebook page (I also have a Facebook page) and somebody posted on it: “I really enjoyed your book, I do hope it all works out with your fiancé.” I hadn’t expected the extent to which people – I guess, quite naturally – would assume that because outwardly Nick and I are quite similar that this is a kind of obfuscated autobiography. I spent time in Moscow, like Nick, [but] he’s not me — none of this stuff happened to me. There is a lot of personal observation here, if not direct personal experience; I have seen people behaving this way.

These experiences didn’t happen to you, but are any of the events real; did they happen to someone you know or do they happen more generally?

There are two kinds of crime in this book. One is apartment fraud, which is a quintessential post-Soviet crime in Russia. At the end of the Soviet Union, a lot of property in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia was privatised. That created, particularly in central bits of Moscow, a class of people who had incredibly valuable assets, who were often quite old. So suddenly we have suddenly a kind of class of asset-rich people, a load of other people with absolutely nothing, and a system in which the police and the judiciary are 100% corruptible. So, this particular kind of crime (apartment fraud, often accompanied by violence) was, in the ’90s and the noughties – and possibly still today – incredibly common. It’s actually an instructive kind of crime because it tells you something about the inequality that followed the Soviet Union and also the corruption of institutions.

The other kind of crime is dodgy business loans. It’s a sort of reciprocal corruption – it involves both Russian companies and Western banks and other institutions; it’s in everybody’s interest to keep the money flowing. The companies and the deals that are in my book are invented, but this kind of stuff happens; they are not based on individual events, but they are based on real phenomena.

Do you think it’s the space that leads Nick to be involved in a scam or do you think it’s something that he’s capable of himself, that comes from within him?

Well, partly it’s him and his background and his sort of drifting, lonely, disappointed, lecherous and other fairly ordinary feelings and partly it’s Moscow and the incentives he encounters — the fact that it’s a lawless place. But, at the same time, I think you could tell this story about all kinds of different places. You could tell the same story about London, about people believing lies and lying to themselves because it’s to their advantage, or it’s too inconvenient not to. So, I don’t think it’s a Moscow-specific syndrome. Believing that we’re not to blame for our actions, that somebody else is ultimately to blame, that kind of self-deception is quite common and present in all times and places.

Why do you think Nick needs to keep believing the fiction, or ignoring the truth, when he’s clearly being lied to?

Blind-eye turning is quite a common thing. I think people often choose to believe lies, choose to believe in fiction, because it’s convenient. In his case, it’s because he’s having too good a time and he doesn’t want to disrupt it, because he persuades himself that, while something nasty might be happening, it’s probably not that bad and, in any case, it’s not ultimately his fault; he’s just a lawyer, he doesn’t bear ultimate responsibility for whatever might be going down. Professionally, it’s also his job is to make problems go away; his job is not to embrace problems but to minimise them and, if possible, eradicate them.

There’s a good bit at the end of The Wild Duck, the Henrik Ibsen play about the life-lie – if one has lies that they need otherwise they couldn’t carry on. In Nick’s case it’s not quite that dramatic, it’s not that he couldn’t carry on, but he’s preserving the life that he has come to enjoy and so he chooses not to. He’s not naive — he knows the lies are lies, but he prefers to ignore them.

One reviewer described it as staring at something so long that you stop noticing what you’re seeing; do you think that’s accurate?

I think it’s accurate that that can happen. Whether that happens to Nick or not, I don’t know. It’s not so much that he stares at it, it’s more that he averts his eyes; he knows it’s there. It’s definitely true that what he does is quite normal; he behaves in a morally-blind way and one very characteristic of the time in which the book is set – not just the place, but the time. I guess he gets used to the lie; he sort of lives with these lies and he becomes enmeshed in them and they become so familiar to him that he stops regarding them as wrong.

Do you think that this happens within a larger culture of deception in Russia at the time?

I don’t think it’s particularly a Russian phenomenon. The thing about Moscow is not the immorality of the people, but the permissiveness of the system; so the fact that, in a place without rules, in a place that’s governed by power rather than laws, behaving in this morally-blind way can mean worse actions more quickly than it might in another place. I think Nick himself says somewhere in the book that the Russians had a better excuse than him. This is not a book about corrupt Russians. On the contrary, the narrator emerges from it at least as bad as anybody else. Moscow is a permissive environment; it’s an environment in which this kind of behaviour can have more catastrophic or more extreme consequences, because there’s nothing to prevent that happening. But in countries with functioning polices forces or non-corrupt judiciaries there are still bad people in high positions.

The phenomenon of snowdrops – bodies buried in the snow that rise to the surface when the snow thaws – it seems to be a kind of metaphor for other human behaviours, especially the workings of the unconscious; when you push things down they inevitably come back up.

Also that they’re there the whole time, you just didn’t notice them or you chose not to notice them. Actually, the real snowdrop in the book is Nick, the narrator. The thing that’s uncovered at the end of the winter and at the end of the book is him. And what he is capable of doing, going along with, participating in, aspects of himself that he hadn’t previously recognised, but which were always there. It leaves you asking the question, “Is it him or is it Moscow?”. Maybe it’s a bit of both, but he obviously was able to be complicit in evil in a way that he may not previously have recognised. The main job of this metaphor in the book is precisely that, it’s supposed to signify aspects of him that hadn’t previously acknowledged and only really secondarily is it to do with violence, because there’s not a lot of violence in the book. It’s more a psychological metaphor than a criminal one.

Nick tells this story to his fiancé. What is the value of your choice of narration?

If you have a first person narration, it can be useful and enriching to have an implied interlocutor or listener for the story. My hope for it is that the story of the relationship between Nick and his fiancé echoes and reinforces the main Moscow narrative that he tells, because by the end of the book, there’s a noted passive-aggression in the way he interacts with his fiancé. What first seemed like a well-intentioned effort to come clean, by the end seems more complicated than that.This, therefore, contributes to the overall picture of moral decline in the story. Nick’s confession is not really a confession. He knows he’s done something wrong and he feels a bit guilty, but I don’t know whether his guilt is adequate to the events he describes. And guilt, he himself says, is certainly not the principle feeling that his time in Moscow evokes in him. I imagined him enjoying reminiscing on this time as the most exhilarating, alive time of his life.

snowdrops-thumbSnowdrops is published by Atlantic and available from Kalahari.com.

10 QUESTIONS: Helena S. Paige

BY SOPHY KOHLER

Writing under the name Helena S. Paige, friends Helen Moffett, Sarah Lotz and Paige Nick have shaken up the international literary world, shoving E.L. James aside, with the launch of a series of erotic novels in which the reader gets to choose their own fantasy. The first two books, A Girl Walks Into A Bar and A Girl Walks Into A Wedding, are available in several languages and readers can expected a third title, A Girl Walks Into A Blind Date, later this year.

We had our way with them during a brief gap in their busy schedules:

How did you react when you realised just how successful the idea would be?

HELEN: Sheer disbelief. Those first emails describing the international rights sales had me pinching myself. A year later, it still doesn’t feel real.

PAIGE: It’s so unlike anything that’s ever happened to me, I didn’t quite know how to react. I still don’t. Gobsmacked is the closest word I can think of.

SARAH: I’m also still at the “pinch me” stage. We’ve been incredibly fortunate.

Was the book ever intended as a feminist piece, with the idea of giving some agency back to women, or is it just a bit of fun?

HELEN: Fun, first and foremost. But the idea was born out of a feminist rant about how if women’s erotica was going to go mainstream, why couldn’t women be in charge, be the ones making choices?

Did you have fun writing it? Were there any awkward moments during the collaboration?

HELEN: Writing as a trio is the most tremendous fun – we laugh so much, Sarah’s dogs start howling. Awkward moments: I am, ahem, a tad older than my co-authors, and a member of the last generation who remembers when a condom was something you used as back-up when you’d forgotten to take the Pill. Early on, I asked Paige and Sarah if there were any circumstances in which the Girl could have sex without a condom. (Yes, I know. *Hangs head.*) I’ll never forget the looks on their faces. That’s when we decided the Girl would always have safer sex.

PAIGE: On one or two occasions, in author meetings, I would suggest something and then blush furiously and hold my breath, hoping they wouldn’t think I was a massive sexually perverted freak. You have to have a relatively judgement-free zone to co-write a sex book. Writing these books has been so much fun, I often have to remind myself that it’s work.

SARAH: The only awkwardness I felt during the collaboration was when Paige dared me to write one of the sex scenes. Not my forte – you can either write sex or you can’t. I leave that integral part of the books to the experts.

Was it challenging having to combine three distinct literary styles into a single voice?

HELEN: I found that really enjoyable. It’s a lovely editing challenge, blending and mixing.

PAIGE: That’s not something I wanted to worry about while writing. I had to just get my parts of the story out and trust that we would smooth the rest out later. We’re also lucky to have a built-in, world-class editor.

SARAH: Paige and I are both commercial writers, so our “literary” voices aren’t a million miles apart. It helps having a world-class editor on the team to smooth over the cracks though.

What have your unique backgrounds added to the book?

HELEN: It helps that we all have such different skills. Paige is our Everywoman, with chick-lit chops (and she writes GREAT sex). Sarah is the Mistress of Plot, and also the fastest writer I know, which was helpful, given that we had to deliver three manuscripts in ten months. With my history as an editor, I get all Virgo, nag over tiny plot-holes, and scrub at everyone’s punctuation. Plus I’ve been writing erotica for a while, so it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to do it professionally, as it were.

Have you had any reviews from male readers?

HELEN: Not formally that we know of – but Ben Williams, well-known to book-lovers around the country as editor of the Sunday Times book pages, has been very encouraging and supportive. And our gay male friends love A Girl Walks Into A Bar.

PAIGE: For some reason, the men seem to enjoy the lesbian scenes the most. I can’t imagine why.

Why have you banned comfy panties?

HELEN: We love them, really we do. But in sex scenes, they’re invariably comic. Not always the effect we want.

PAIGE: It’s bad enough that we have to get all our characters out of their clothes and finding ways to put on a condom: imagine if we had to deal with comfy pants, too!

SARAH: I approve of comfy pants. G-strings are of the devil.

When you read the book, what scenario do each of you end up with?

HELEN: Bags I the barman.

PAIGE: The rock star has always been my fave.

SARAH: The bodyguard, but mainly because of his car (I’m shallow like that).

What do you do to escape the stress of your demanding deadlines?

HELEN: I take my cats for long walks. Very good for my mental health, if not my reputation. But given that I now write erotica for a living, maybe that ship has sailed…

PAIGE: I like to mix business with pleasure, so I research.

SARAH: If I gave you an honest answer to that, I’d be arrested.

helen-s-paige-postWhat’s next for Helena S. Paige?

HELEN: Honestly? A long holiday with lots of naps and books with absolutely no sex in them sounds rather tempting.

PAIGE: If all goes well, maybe more books?

SARAH: A massive gin and tonic, please.

A Girl Walks Into A Bar is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and is available from Kalahari.com.

 

Breaking history

WORDS BY SOPHY KOHLER | PHOTOGRAPHY BY GARETH SMIT

The allure of French historian and novelist, Laurent Binet, lies in a strange quartet of characteristics — a combination of soap star looks, a skin-prickling accent, a brilliant mind, and bizarre tea habits.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival in May last year, we sat down to tea and scones (always a festival highlight). Binet, in turns out, enjoys his ceylon with milk and a slice of lemon. And, while I felt compelled to have the same, instead I went all out and grabbed myself a cup of coffee — milk, no lemon. Like almost all respectable people, Binet enjoys his scones with jam and cream, but unlike most respectable people, he likes to dunk his scones in his tea. A test, a scare tactic, ignorance, or his norm? It seemed impolite to intervene, so I smiled curiously on; I found it strangely endearing.

It is not in my place to criticise the practises of Binet; his debut novel, HHhH, has made numerous Best Book of the Year lists as well as having won the Prix Goncourt in 2010. Additionally, praise from Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, David Lodge, Mario Vargas Llosa, Wells Tower and Gary Shtenyngart is worth taking into account.

Set in Prague in 1942, HHhH is an account of Operation Anthropoid, a covert mission in which two Czechoslovakian parachutists — Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš — are sent to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo and widely considered to be “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich”. Heydrich is even more feared than his boss, Schutzstaffel (SS) head Heinrich Himmler. And, within the SS, it is said that “Himmler’s Hirn heißt Heydrich” (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich) — HHhH. Running parallel to this narrative is Binet’s account of telling the story and his battle against the temptation to use fiction to fill in the blanks in the historical record.

Binet describes HHhH as an “infra-novel”, a term he invented in order to provide a French equivalent of what we, in English, would call a non-fiction novel. According to Binet, HHhH is predominantly about how to write a true story and resist the pull of fiction. He uses the story of Operation Anthropoid to explore this question alongside one which has bothered him since he was a kid, that of the difference between the author and the narrator. In HHhH, the narrator is overtly Binet. “There is no difference in the book between the author and the narrator,” he tells me. “I was struggling so hard with the historical matter, that I think it wouldn’t have made any sense to fictionalise that part. It would have been unnecessary.”

When I ask Binet about the possible dangers involved in reducing the actions of real characters to fiction, he assures me that the danger is not in fiction itself. Rather, it is when fiction is used to prove something or when it masquerades as truth that it becomes problematic. “I have no problem with Inglorious Basterds by Tarantino,” he tells me by way of example. “It’s very funny and obviously playful. Tarantino doesn’t want to prove anything about the Second World War or Hitler. He’s just playing with fiction. Not with history, but with fiction. What I don’t like is when fiction just pretends it’s true, that is dangerous, and the most dangerous books or movies are when there is 90% of truth and 10% of fiction, because then the fiction will be hard to detect and you can fake things.”

Binet is careful to avoid deceiving his reader in this way, describing a kind of deal that exists in HHhH where the difference between fiction and reality is always made clear. Where Binet allows fiction to bleed into history is in moments where the historical detail or his knowledge of a particular event is too lacking for his account of it to be pure; and the desire to make things up is strong. In such places, he admits his own fallibility, describing himself as “the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination”. He separates these moments out by beginning with “I imagine” or following with “I have lied”. It is Binet’s commentary on his failure to capture the truth that makes the book so unusual.

While my instinct is to question the reliability of a narrator who frequently says such things as “I’ve been talking rubbish”, Binet is unsure; he hopes that this honesty makes him more trustworthy. “I think it makes the reader more careful,” he says. “In a way, what I want to say to the reader is don’t trust anything and don’t trust anyone.” He argues that, with such an abundance of novels, “we are so used to manipulation, that even if I try to make it so clear, some people don’t trust me because they don’t trust a narrator anyway.” The narrator’s own continuous self-doubt is what gives HHhH its humour, what Garth Risk Hallberg in The Millions has called “comical anxiety”.

While HHhH asks some serious questions, it is also a cheeky book, one which violates many of the norms of writing and publishing. The UK edition of the book, published by Harvill Secker, doesn’t have page numbers. “It’s a kind of publishing trick,” Binet tells me. “It is funny and it works, from a marketing point of view, because people talk about it. I know some people believe it’s pretentious or irritating, but I’m OK with that. I like it.” The novel also features wild shifts in tense and points of view. “What I didn’t want to do, which is not controversial anymore today, but I think it should be, is to use “I” and to make Heydrich or the parachutists talking,” says Binet. “I am not Heydrich, I am not Gabčík, so why would I say ‘I’? For him, the use of “you” during the book’s denouement, was as much a way of talking directly to the characters as it was a way of involving the reader. “I don’t pretend that I am Heydrich or the parachutists,” he furthers. “Rather, I ask you what you would imagine if you had been them.”

Binet reckons his publishers let him get away with bending the rules of writing, because at the time they were preoccupied with more consequential transgressions. It was during French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign and Binet was heavily critical of him. “I was writing my book and listening to him on TV and sometimes he was saying things that reminded me of Hitler’s speeches,” he tells me. “So I made a few chapters about it and they told me it was too much, that we would be in trouble; that I must please cut it.” Laughing, he continues: “Maybe it was an exaggeration, but it wasn’t my fault! Sometimes he said things that were close to Hitler’s speeches!”

HHhH is full of moments that reveal Binet as subscriber to the saying “fact is stranger than fiction”. In one passage, he describes a situation in which an old friend asks of the book, “in innocent surprise”, “‘Oh, really, it’s not invented?'”. Binet turns to the reader to respond: “No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism?”

Similarly, Binet describes Operation Anthropoid as “more fantastical than the most improbable fiction” and, yet, the temptation to invent is still strong. After resisting the influence of fiction over reality for roughly 400 pages, he gives up the struggle and resigns himself to fact that the two inevitably meet. HHhH concludes with a dreamscape in which he imagines Gabčík and Kubiš on a steamboat headed for France. He sees a young woman who looks like his partner, Natacha, and concludes: “I am also there, perhaps.” Binet tells me that he sees this final chapter as a kind of letting go: “I thought it was an elegant surrender, an elegant way to say ‘OK, I stop fighting’.”

Binet is currently working on another book which, like HHhH, will explore the complex relationship between reality and fiction, this time set in the 1980s which, he reminds me, “is also history”. Through a naughty smile, he reveals: “I will try to see how much you can twist history before it breaks.”

At a time when historians are still vehemently resisting the literary turn, HHhH is a brave book for its refusal to ignore history’s place as a branch of literature. But Binet’s own aim for HHhH takes the book beyond the reach of postmodernism. “I hope that the reader will take the story as it is, which means as a true story,” he concludes.

HHhH is published by Harvill Secker, and is available from Kalahari.com.