The 7th Function of Language
In Paris, 1980, Roland Barthes – the famous literary critic, linguist and semiologist – was fatally injured when knocked down by a delivery van just after he’d had lunch with then presidential candidate François Mitterrand.
This incident, historically unremarkable apart from the loss of one of France’s greatest intellectuals, is the moment that kicks off Laurent Binet’s new novel, The 7th Function of Language.
It’s the follow-up to Binet’s debut, HHhH, a historical thriller that told the story of two Czechoslovakian commandos’ attempt on the life of Reinhard Heydrich, the high-ranking Nazi in charge of occupied Prague. It boasted a genuinely tense narrative that frequently broke down into metafictional asides as Binet interrogated the ambiguous nature of history and its relationship to fiction with all the exuberance of a kitten killing a butterfly. In this new detective caper, Binet has turned up his anarchic playfulness as far as it will go.
Superintendent Bayard, a hard-boiled Parisian cop, is assigned to investigate the death of Barthes and stumbles upon a conspiracy for which the philosopher was seemingly murdered. This conspiracy centres on a document by the linguistic theorist Roman Jakobson who famously distinguished six functions of language. The document details a seventh – a rhetorical device so powerful that it grants its user unstoppable powers of persuasion. Taking the idea that language is “man’s most powerful weapon” to an extreme, the seventh function allows semiotics – the study of signs and meaning, which gave arts departments a scientific-sounding platform to argue for more funding – to “turn itself into a neutron bomb”. It represents a dramatic change to the realpolitik of the Cold War, and sinister factions immediately begin fighting to get their hands on the document.
Out of his depth, Bayard recruits Simon Herzog a, young semiologist with a Sherlock Holmes-like ability to divine signs from signifiers, and together they begin shaking down the cream of French intellectuals.
“Life is not a novel. Or at least you would like to believe so,” Binet tells us in the opening gambit of The 7th Function of Language. Over the course of the caper, the lines begin to blur: between the leaps of deduction in detective work, the significations of semiologists, the devices novelists use to draw connections between events and their meanings, and the way we make sense of our lives. Detective, novelist, reader – all are semiologists.
As Bayard and Herzog zip around the world to unravel the sprawling conspiracy, it becomes something of an espionage novel, albeit one featuring the stars of French philosophy as antagonists in a Cold War intrigue.
Real-life events, such as the Bologna terrorist bombing that left 85 dead, dovetail with fictional and often farcical tropes. Soviet agents with poison-tipped umbrellas hunt a North African sex worker who may possess the seventh function and have unknowingly become a living weapon. Mobbed-up Italian fascists circle mysterious Japanese secret agents. At a secret debating society called the Logos Club, chancing intellectuals conduct “oratory duels” and are dismembered when they disgrace themselves, in the style of yakuza soldiers. The style is a glorious, freewheeling mash-up of a Dan Brown novel, a James Bond film and an undergraduate course in literary theory.
Does it make sense? Not at all, but that’s hardly the point. Binet seems less concerned with writing a cogent thriller as releasing a devastating, if playful, broadside on the intellectual pretentiousness of the golden age of French semiotics. Among the chancers and players caught up in the fight for the seventh function are Paul de Man, Jacques Lacan, Jack Lang and Jean-Paul Sartre. Few are depicted kindly.
Foucault, for instance, is a narcissist and wastrel. A sample cameo: “Around a low table, Michel Foucault, wrapped in a black kimono, is explaining the mysteries of elephant sexuality to two young men in underpants, one of whom has his portrait reproduced in three photographs hung on a pillar next to the sofa.”
Elsewhere, Camille Paglia has it off with Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida is mauled by a junkyard dog let off the leash by an American linguist, and Philippe Sollers is literally emasculated by a superior thinker at the Logos Club.
It raises the question: where does Binet get his balls? The ambition of this book is breathtaking, the tone somewhere between Martin Luther’s note on the cathedral door and a Monty Python skit.
It is a comic take-down of self-serious literary theory, while at the same time a loving homage to the symbology and semiotics it satirises. At once a sort of spoof of The Da Vinci Code and a tribute to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which Brown ripped off to write his dross. There is a lot of Eco in this novel. In fact, he makes a cameo at a particularly dramatic junction.
In pacing and intent, this novel is the antithesis of the airless thrillers it pays homage to – Binet gleefully punches breathing holes in the fourth wall when the plot gets tied up in convolutions. “I think,” a character laments, while trying to unravel the mystery, “I’m trapped in a fucking novel.” Later on, he reminds himself: “ ‘This isn’t a Sherlock Holmes story.’ ” The author tries to have his cake and eat it too, but every 60 pages or so he gets bored and goes to find a new gateau.
Is Binet a genius? Maybe. Is he too smart for his own good? Almost certainly. No working author is so skilled at balancing high-minded ideas with sheer playfulness, but this book is a reminder that it’s possible to get lost in playing alone. There is only so far a writer can indulge the pleasures of creating – even for a writer of Binet’s skill, charm and intelligence – before the pleasure becomes onanistic. A reader might suspect that the author is having a better time than them. But wild, unwieldy and far from a tight or functional novel, it’s still the most fun you can have with an arts degree. ZC
Harvill Secker, 416pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2017 as "Laurent Binet, The 7th Function of Language". Subscribe here.