Magazine | October 2, 2017, Issue

Word Games

Novelist Laurent Binet. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel, by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor (Farrar, Straus, 368 pp., $27)

Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH, was awarded the Prix Goncourt for first novel in 2010. The title is an abbreviation for “Himmler’s Brain Is Called Heydrich” (“Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich”), referring to the very dark SS figure Reinhard Heydrich, who, until his assassination in Prague in 1942, was one of the chief architects of the plan to exterminate all Jews in German-occupied lands of Europe. The novel centers on the special operation to assassinate Heydrich and the subsequent scorched-earth response of the Nazis, in which the entire Czech village of Lidice was wiped from the face of the earth. Binet’s narrator, in postmodernist fashion, wrestled with the convention of writing a realist novel about events of such magnitude. Could fiction truthfully portray, for instance, for pampered 21st-century Westerners, the heroism of the Czech operatives Gabcik and Kubis?

In The Seventh Function of Language, Binet has left behind the difficulty of writing about historical events and has created fake history, bringing together a cast of characters that will be familiar to anyone who was in graduate school in the humanities circa 1980, while tying them up in a Dan Brown–style caper that features secret societies, conspiracy theories, Bulgarian assassins, state secrets, the KGB, and French presidential politics. It will help if you know what semiotics is about. The novel’s appearance in English translation is indicative of the continuing seductive power of the French intellectual Left.

Among the most prominent of French intellectuals was the literary theorist Roland Barthes, who was hit by a delivery van on a Paris street on February 25, 1980, and died a few weeks later. One can imagine that this scenario would provide rich material for a novel, as Barthes just happened to be returning at the time from lunch with François Mitterrand, the Socialist candidate for president of France. Indeed, it is surprising that such a novel hasn’t been written before: Consider the speculation that would have ensued had Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker been killed within hours of dining with one of the 16 Republicans running for the office of U.S. president 18 months ago. Binet has risen to the challenge.

Barthes’s death would not seem to be cause for a police investigation, except, in Binet’s telling, the van driver was Bulgarian, which leads the president of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, to suspect Soviet meddling in French affairs. Enter Jacques Bayard, a conscientious investigator in the French police’s intelligence service who doesn’t need to have it spelled out for him that his task is also to ferret out any information that could damage Mitterrand. From Bayard’s questioning of Barthes in his hospital room, we learn that Barthes had been carrying a document that is now missing. For the detective, “the disappearance of the papers is a curious gray area in what otherwise looks like an ordinary accident,” and things snowball from there. In seeking to recover the missing document, which concerns the “seventh function of language,” Bayard enters the Alice in Wonderland world of French poststructuralism, which, at its most basic, posits that reality is constituted by language, not by the commonsense intuitions of people like Jacques Bayard. Since Bayard doesn’t understand anything these lefties (as he calls them) have to say, he drafts into service a doctoral candidate at the Sorbonne campus at Vincennes, Simon Herzog, who is teaching a class there on James Bond films.

From Paris, the investigation takes our detective pair far afield (at Giscard’s direction): to Bologna (where they meet with Umberto Eco minutes before the bombing of the Bologna train station on August 2, 1980), Cornell University (site of a conference on “the linguistic turn”), and Venice. Among those who sport across the novel’s pages are Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Tzvetan Todorov, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Louis Althusser, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, Jacques Derrida . . . not to forget Morris J. Zapp, a character in David Lodge’s 1984 novel Small World. Binet does a credible job of portraying the celebrity status of these figures and the inanities of po-mo-speak. Bayard hears the jabberwocky of Foucault in a lecture at the Sorbonne — “Between this system of law that governs actions and relates to a subject of will, and consequently the indefinite repeatability of the error, and the outline of the salvation and perfection that concerns the subjects, which implies a temporal scansion and an irreversibility, there is, I think, no possible integration . . .” — and bitterly asks himself whether “the big baldy” earns more than he does.

The seventh function of language of the novel’s title takes its name from a work by the grand old man of linguistics, Roman Jakobson, who distinguished six elements of spoken language that were necessary for communication to take place. We learn that Barthes at his death was in receipt of a document from Jakobson concerning a seventh function. Although the meaning of the seventh function is never spelled out, knowledge of it is believed to endow its possessor with immense rhetorical superiority. During a conversation minutes before the explosion in Bologna, Eco tells Bayard: “Whoever had the knowledge and the mastery of such a function would be virtually the master of the world. . . . He could win every election, whip up crowds, provoke revolutions, seduce any woman . . .”

As it turns out, the document is being sought after for reasons that have nothing to do with realpolitik or sex. This is where the secret societies come in. Barthes’s accident, the murders of two others who had knowledge of the document, the deaths of the Bulgarian assassins and of Jacques Derrida (who meets his end at the Cornell conference in a scene reminiscent of The Hound of the Baskervilles), and the suicide of John Searle (among other events) were all set in motion by Julia Kristeva (a Bulgarian by birth) and Philippe Sollers to get hold of the document so that Sollers could become the Great Protagoras of a secret global debating society called the Logos Club. (The current Great Protagoras turns out to be Eco.)

Unbeknownst to them, however, Mitterrand’s man, Jack Lang, had managed to extract the document from Barthes’s jacket during the fatal luncheon, have Régis Debray deliver it to Jacques Derrida (who falsified the contents with some substitutions), and get it back into Barthes’s pocket, all before he was mowed down by the Bulgarian van driver. At the end of the novel, the function is known only to Mitterrand, who is able to use it effectively in a televised debate with Giscard d’Estaing, thereby becoming the first Socialist president of the Fifth Republic. In this counterfactual universe, knowledge of the function dies with Mitterrand.

Got all that? That was the easy part.

In the end, everything comes down to language. The Logos Club, like all secret societies, is all about rituals, code words, and special languages. The judges of the contests wear Venetian masks. The stakes are high, as those who fail the initiation must submit to having a finger chopped off — or their testicles, in the case of Philippe Sollers. Are we to conclude from all this hermeticism that the novel is a send-up of French poststructuralist theory, a secret body of knowledge to which only the elect have access, while the rest of us dodos remain unilluminated? Certainly, had a conservative written this novel, one would conclude that it was a hatchet job. European reviewers have noted Binet’s comic-book portrayal of the French glitterati, among whom there is not a single attractive figure. Michel Foucault, for instance, comes across as excessively louche, with cringeworthy depictions of him being fellated by young Arab males (in Binet’s telling, prostitution appears to be the major way this demographic makes a living).

But The Seventh Function of Language was not written by a conservative. In an interview in the online magazine Partisan, Lydia Perovic congratulated Binet: “The feat of this novel is that while you’ve turned some of the greatest thinkers of our time into comic characters, you’ve also honored their writing to a T.” Perhaps she is referring to didactic passages in which Simon explains to Bayard the differences between Continental philosophy and the ideas of the French theoreticians? Binet, who was eight years old in 1980, concurred with Perovic’s judgment. After the age of poststructuralism, the glamour apparently lives on. I am hazarding a guess that the U.S. reception of this novel will indicate to what extent we are still enthralled by French intellectual fashions of bygone years.

– Elizabeth Powers is a writer living in New York City.

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