On HHhH, by Laurent Binet

The Life of Life

I spent time getting things ready for my daughter's pre-ball party. Then I relaxed for an hour, reading about the Nazis. It was Laurent Binet's historical novel, HHhH, about Reinhard Heydrich, the Hangman of Prague, the high-ranking Nazi who devised the methods for murdering the Jews on an industrial scale. I came upon this detail: when a brave assassin confronted Heydrich on a Prague street, the gun jammed. One theory is that it jammed because the assassin had been carrying it hidden in a box of grass, and the grass had got into its workings. Why would he be carrying the gun in a box of grass? Because many Czechs kept rabbits, and collected plants from the city parks to feed them.

This raised a memory: back when I was a teenager, and had just met the young man who would be my inseparable companion for the next five years. His sister was a painter, Jenny Dolezel. His father, a Czech, had been a child witness to the horrors Heydrich inflicted on occupied Prague. The family kept rabbits, and the elder sister would walk around Parnell with a box, collecting grass to feed them. The quest for rabbit cuttings: I didn't realise it was a Czech cultural activity.

My inseparable companion died in front of me on an Auckland street, killed by a hit and run driver who was never caught. I found myself up at Central Police being shouted at by homicide detective John Hughes. "Be clear," he yelled. And then, "Draw me a diagram." I drew the diagram, with a stick figure to represent the dead. This experience taught me a valuable lesson about life.

At the pre-ball party I said sternly to one young arrival, "You can have a single glass of champagne, so long as you're not driving." I didn't want to preside over one of those disasters: the boozy pre-ball, the subsequent accident. A bit later she pointed out a glamorous young woman in six-inch heels. "That's my daughter," she said. I rushed to explain, to ply her with wine. "You're a parent? You must think I'm a Nazi. Or fantastically mean. Drink as much as you want!"

One parent told me we had a mutual friend, a politician. He said he often spent time at parliament. "Doing what?" I asked. Eventually he told me, "I'm a lobbyist for the liquor industry." He had to put up with my amusement at this. "Well," I said, "At least you're not Satan. Or a banker. Did you see the recent news footage of teenagers drunk in Queen Street?" He replied with great charm, "Oh, they just bring out those shots for the ball season."

Meanwhile the girls: glamour, high heels, big hair; the boys in their black suits and black ties. The important thing was that they had a good time. The important thing was that they come back alive. I remembered when I was their age. What you don't tell them is the risks you took. You keep that quiet, and hope they're not nearly as reckless.

When the loved one is turned into a stick figure on a diagram, it's a lesson in what's really important. I liked the idea of children after that, the more the merrier, and when they came along I didn't want to put them in a crèche, I wanted them on hand at all times. They had to be more important than anything. They and their peers seem less neurotic than my generation, better adjusted, sunnier, more orderly. So far at least, touch wood. My eldest child will turn twenty-two this year. For me, that's twenty-two years of happiness.

When I was at high school my friends and I built a raft and sailed it out into the harbour to block the arrival of a U.S. nuclear submarine. It was the kind of thing we did. It was a hilarious, terrifying adventure on the harbour. One of us who crewed the raft that day was later killed by Graeme Burton, the double murderer who went on the rampage in the hills behind Wellington. Another gone, turned into a chalk outline on the ground.

I and another one of those school friends spent a year living in a comical flat in Parnell where we lay on the couch on Saturday mornings wearing dark glasses and satirically watching Star Trek on TV. Recently I went to Auckland Hospital to see his newborn baby, a beautiful little girl with a name to reflect her proud Kiwi-Sri Lankan heritage: Nina Ashanti St John. She was wrapped in a white muslin cloth with a gold star printed on it. A tiny, regal presence, more important than anything, she was a happy ending and a beginning; she was the life of life, a symbol and a star.

First published in Metro Magazine NZ