The last stop of our Man Booker International Prize journey saw us narrowly escaping car bombs, secret agents and strangulation, but if anyone was looking forward to a more relaxing trip today, I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you. We may be off to the city of love, and semiotics and semiology may not sound like the most violent of academic disciplines, but the next book once again plunges us into a chaotic whirlwind of activity. While it may seem to be a simply story of language, we’re about to learn that there’s a high price on the art of persuasion, and some people will do anything to keep the secret for themselves…
The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet
– Harvill Secker, translated by Sam Taylor
What’s it all about?
It’s February 1980, and famed linguist and writer Roland Barthes is returning from lunch when he is knocked over in the street. While he regains consciousness, he is to die a few weeks later, and his funeral will attract all the leading lights of the French intellectual scene.
A tragic accident, perhaps – but what if that’s not the whole story? Barthes was returning from a meeting with presidential candidate François Mitterand, and while the incident in the street seems unfortunate, there’s something about certain aspects of the case that seems a little suspicious. However, the policeman sent to investigate, Superintendent Bayard, soon finds himself lost in a maze of intellectual sophism, deciding that if he’s to get to the bottom of the mystery, he’s going to need a partner with more of an aptitude for linguistic trickery. Barthes’ death is merely the start of the story, and in order to solve the mystery, the ill-matched dynamic duo will need to use both words and guns…
In his first novel, HHhH, Binet took a real-life story and gave it his own twist, attempting to blend history, meta-fiction and a hint of wry humour, but The 7th Function of Language ups the ante enormously, with the writer taking Barthes’ death as the starting point for his work before allowing his imagination to run away in whatever direction it pleases. The result is a chaotic work spanning the globe, in which some of the greatest minds of the generation act like characters in a James Bond movie – which, obviously, is a good thing.
The key to the novel is a linguistic concept concerning the functions of language, allowing us to divide the way we use it into six discrete functions. However, there are rumours of a seventh function, one that allows the speaker to persuade the listener to do their bidding – and Bayard suspects that the reason for the attack on Barthes is his discovery of this elusive function. Not possessing the necessary background knowledge to make sense of the environment his investigation takes him into, he is forced to coopt part-time lecturer Simon Herzog into assisting him. Little does Herzog know what he’s reluctantly getting himself into (although meeting the incumbent president, Valéry Giscard D’Estang, at the start of his adventures, soon tells him that this is no ordinary secondment).
The investigation takes them around Paris and beyond, but there’s one place they visit on several occasions:
“Welcome to the Logos Club,my friends. Come demonstrate, come deliberate, come praise and criticise the beauty of the Word! Oh Word that sweeps away hearts and commands the universe! Come attend the spectacle of litigants jousting for oratory supremacy and for your utmost pleasure!”
pp.141/2 (Harvill Secker, 2017)
An underground fight club for intellectuals, the Logos Club is a society for impromptu one-on-one debate with a sinister edge. There’s a strict hierarchical order, but anyone is free to challenge the higher-ranked speakers, and seek to topple them, as long as they are willing to pay the price for failure…
At which point, most of you are probably wondering what on earth this is all about. Is it literary fiction? Is it a The Da Vinci Code knock-off? The truth is that there’s a fair bit of both mixed liberally throughout the novel. When Bayard first meets Herzog, James Bond is mentioned in his lecture, and there’s more than a hint of 007 about what happens later as the story moves from Paris to Bologna, New York to Venice. From the very start, there are mysterious spies with moustaches, a couple of Japanese men with no apparent motive for being round, a beautiful Russian woman who always seems to appear at the right moment – ‘The Linguist Who Loved Me’, perhaps?
However, the chaos has a grounding in fact and the history of the era. Set in a time of great flux in France, with the age of the patrician right-wing coming to an end, the novel connects the influence of left-wing intellectuals with an impending change in society. The novel is a veritable orgy of name-dropping for the linguistically minded, with Derrida, Foucault, Sartre, Sagan, Chomsky and Althusser just a few of the intellectual lights portrayed here (often in rather confronting situations). The cold-war background also allows Binet to play fast and loose with certain characters, with a certain Bulgarian-born academic shown to be keeping a major secret.
As was the case in HHhH, Binet’s narrator is a detached, wry soul, one moment meticulous about every detail, the next claiming that it doesn’t really matter and that he can’t be expected to know it all, anyway. There are times where it all threatens to go off the rails somewhat, and the writer asks us not only to suspend our disbelief but dispose of it completely; however, he usually manages to hold it all together, even if his characters can be concerned about how unreal it all seems:
What were the odds of him bumping into her again, tonight, in this crowd? The thought flashes through Simon’s mind that he is either being manipulated by a really bad novelist or Anastasia is some sort of super-spy. (p.367)
In fact, where at times the reader will suspect Dan Brown influences, the more we read, the more it actually seems like a tongue-in-cheek parody of Brown’s books 😉
For anyone with even a passing interest in language, The 7th Function of Language is a wonderful way to while away a few hours, and I certainly enjoyed it far more than I did HHhH. With its focus on semiology and the interpretation of signs, Binet is challenging the reader from the start to decode his novel and work out exactly what he wants to say. I’m not sure that there’s quite as much here as he would like us to believe, but if a thriller based on linguistic theories and a rhetorical fight club sounds intriguing, this one is for you 🙂
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not really. It’s all great fun, and I certainly enjoyed this far more than HHhH, yet there’s nothing here to suggest that Binet deserves to take his place among the great writers he so obviously admires. He’s no Dan Brown, but he’s certainly not a great of the game either, and if he were to wander into the Logos Club with a copy of his novel as his argument, I suspect he’d be missing more than a finger or two by the time he left the building…
Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it. I can see why it made the longlist as it does manage to blend some interesting characters and events into a fascinating spy yarn. However, will the judges (highly educated people, no doubt) really fall for what isn’t half as deep as might appear at first glance? I suspect that after a second read through, Binet’s name won’t be high on their list of possibilities for the next stage.
After an eventful trip around the world (with a very French twist), we’re heading off on yet another extended journey. While our next destination is meant to be Poland, we’ll be stopping off in several cities throughout Europe, and beyond, in a work exploring the need for travel and the mysteries of the human body. Keep your passports handy – this will be a trip requiring several flights…