Politics and phi­los­o­phy col­lide in mur­der mys­tery

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Nathan Smith

On Fe­bru­ary 25, 1980, French philoso­pher Roland Barthes was mowed down by a laun­dry van while walk­ing home from lunch. Was it a ran­dom ac­ci­dent or some­thing more sin­is­ter?

For French writer Lau­rent Binet, this seem­ingly in­nocu­ous (al­beit tragic) ac­ci­dent was in fact a far more ne­far­i­ous event, one that is the ba­sis for his com­pelling new novel.

In The 7th Func­tion of Lan­guage, Lau­rent sets cul­tural stud­ies and po­lit­i­cal in­trigue on a dan­ger­ous col­li­sion course. As in his 2010 de­but novel HHhH, in which he rewrote the story be­hind the as­sas­si­na­tion of Nazi gen­eral Rein­hard Hey­drich by Czech re­sis­tance fight­ers, Binet in­ter­sects his­tor­i­cal truth with nar­ra­tive fic­tion to pro­duce a provoca­tive and po­lit­i­cal work.

The story be­gins with the death of Barthes. In this al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity the lit­er­ary the­o­rist is mur­dered for dis­cov­er­ing the so-called “seventh func­tion of lan­guage”. Rus­sian lin­guist Ro­man Jakob­son had pre­vi­ously mapped out six func­tions, in­clud­ing the idea of a po­etic and an emo­tive func­tion. But with new re­search, Bar- thes ap­par­ently had found how to im­ple­ment an elu­sive seventh func­tion of lan­guage, in a way that would wield un­prece­dented power over oth­ers.

Su­per­in­ten­dent Ba­yard, the lead de­tec­tive as­signed to Barthes’s mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, is clue­less about (and un­in­ter­ested in) aca­demic jar­gon about lan­guage, and so en­lists a young, bum­bling pro­fes­sor to help him nav­i­gate the world of semi­otics and struc­tural­ists. In Ba­yard’s case, “dead au­thors don’t in­ter­est him”.

But, thank­fully for read­ers, Binet of­fers lu­cid and il­lu­mi­nat­ing ex­pla­na­tions of con­cepts found in 20th-cen­tury French phi­los­o­phy. Th­ese in­clude learn­ing about the ori­gins of post-struc­tural­ism and the ideas of Jac­ques Der­rida and Michel Fou­cault, all of which com­ple­ment the nar­ra­tive in a way that never feels dis­tract­ing or su­per­flu­ous.

Soon enough, the mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion takes on an in­ter­na­tional di­men­sion as the French gov­ern­ment be­comes in­volved af­ter learn­ing of the po­ten­tial in Barthes’s seventh func­tion. Bul­gar­ian hench­men, mean­while, start stalk­ing Ba­yard and his as­sis­tant in an at­tempt to stop the pair dis­cov­er­ing Barthes’s last work and its true po­lit­i­cal value.

Binet merges this in­trigue with com­i­cal encounters with Barthes’s peers and ri­vals, and their ideas. Ju­lia Kris­teva ex­pe­ri­ences a vis­ceral re­ac­tion to the “skin” on the top of her cafe latte. Um­berto Eco, uri­nated on by a mad po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal in an Ital­ian cafe, tries to un­der­stand the sym­bol­ism of the act. A young Ju­dith But­ler ap­pears at a univer­sity con­fer­ence wax­ing lyri­cal about the “per­for­ma­tive” func­tion of lan­guage.

The in­ter­play be­tween the po­lit­i­cal depths of the mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the camp and ex­ag­ger­ated iden­ti­ties of the other philoso­phers is smart and strate­gic. Here Binet not only demon­strates an im­pres­sively in­ti­mate knowl­edge of each writer’s work but also high­lights the satir­i­cal po­ten­tial of their lives.

Within the in­ves­ti­ga­tion it­self, Binet in­serts some play­ful and ironic clues. One is the ap­pear­ance of a Citroen DS fol­low­ing Ba­yard and the pro­fes­sor through the streets of Paris. That’s the same car that fea­tured in Barthes’s Mytholo­gies, a book that ex­am­ined the cul­tural mean­ings and myth­i­cal val­ues in­vested in ob­jects (red wine, toys and so on).

Still, be­yond th­ese clever aca­demic jokes, Barthes’s mys­te­ri­ous death an­chors the novel, bear­ing the ad­dic­tive­ness of any good air­port thriller. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion sees Ba­yard head to Italy, where he sur­vives a bomb­ing in a Bologna train sta­tion, and then to the US where a lin­guis­tics con­fer­ence at Cor­nell proves just as haz­ardous, and not just in­tel­lec­tu­ally.

In­tel­li­gence agen­cies and Eastern Euro­pean spies — as well as some med­dling French the­o­rists — all con­vene at the con­fer­ence to try to track down the orig­i­nal doc­u­ment Barthes ap­par­ently left be­hind, and go to ex­treme lengths to re­move any­one stand­ing in their way.

Binet clev­erly satirises the French philo­soph­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, point­ing out its elitism and solip­sism, be­fore show­ing how hu­man th­ese thinkers were, full of pride, anx­i­ety and so much unchecked hubris. And, as with any good thriller, there are enough twists and sus­pense to keep you hooked for 400 pages. It’s both a mur­der mys­tery and a re­ward­ing in­tel­lec­tual ride. is an arts writer.

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