Politics and philosophy collide in murder mystery
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.