Book Review: Laurent Binet’s “The Seventh Function of Language”

By: John Flynn-York

Laurent Binet’s first novel, HHhH (short for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” which, translated, means “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), was a fictional reconstruction of the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. The novel’s narrative fluctuated between past and present, history and story. In the past, Heydrich rises to power in the Third Reich, committing unspeakable atrocities along the way, while two operatives—the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík—plan to kill him. In the present, the narrator grapples with this story and how best to write it, drawing on books, museums, and other references to recreate it in detail. The brilliance of the book came from the tension between these perspectives. What does it mean to recreate history? Can we understand the way historical figures understood things—that is, can we get inside their heads? Can we ever know the truth? In other words, HHhH was as concerned with what it means to tell a story about history as it was with the historical events themselves.

Binet’s new book, The Seventh Function of Language, similarly takes its inspiration from a real event: the accident that claimed the life of the semiologist Roland Barthes. Out of this incident, Binet spins a madcap tale of intellectuals run amok that is by turns wildly entertaining, mildly frustrating, and intellectually captivating—and only sometimes faithful to the historical record.

It is 1980, and Barthes, after leaving a lunch in Paris with French presidential candidate François Mitterand, is hit by a laundry truck and badly injured. At first, it appears to be an accident. But Superintendent Jacques Bayard, a no-nonsense policeman charged with the investigation, senses that there’s something amiss. And so, he investigates. Barthes is taken to a hospital, put on a ventilator, and thronged by fans, professors, and fellow intellectuals. Meanwhile, Bayard visits one of Barthes’s contemporaries, the writer and philosopher Michel Foucault, who is lecturing at the Collège de France, a school that is open to all and offers no degrees. Bayard suffers through a lecture on “the meaning of the repetition of penitence,” and afterward tries to get a few simple answers out of Foucault, who is hostile and flippant. Sensing that he needs a guide to this alternate world where people discuss “normative principles” and “systems of thought,” Bayard recruits a young professor of semiology, Simon Herzog, who teaches at Vincennes, “a university swarming with work-shy lefties and professional agitators.” Those thoughts are Bayard’s, of course. Simon (who, in contrast to Bayard, is always referred to by his first name in the book) sees it differently—he’s one of those lefties—and resists being dragged into the investigation. He has classes to teach, a thesis to finish writing, a book to return to the library. So Bayard requisitions him. “You strike me as being less stupid than the rest of these long-haired louts, and I need a translator for all this bullshit,” Bayard tells him.

From there, hijinks ensue. Following an unsteady chain of clues, Bayard and Simon begin to uncover layers of the mystery. Who ran over Barthes, and why? They discover a secret debating club, in which losing a debate results in the amputation of a finger. They travel to Bologna and Ithaca. Their search winds deeper and deeper into academic and political networks. Various luminaries of philosophy, linguistics, and other disciplines appear: Umberto Eco, Julia Kristeva, Noam Chomsky. Friends turn out to be foes, and foes turn out to be friends. There’s a dramatic reversal or two, wild sex, sudden violence, more sex. Roman Jakobson’s theory of the functions of language is explained and discussed.

Bayard and Simon are comically and strategically mismatched, and their interplay is often amusing—think Sherlock and Watson, with a healthy dose of Inspector Clouseau. For the reader who is unfamiliar with post-structuralism and semiology, Binet provides two aids: short chapters that discuss the history of these ideas with humor and pith, and Simon himself, who is always ready to explain a complicated concept to the more practical-minded Bayard. (What is semiology? Binet’s narrator is there to help the unacquainted reader by quoting Ferdinand de Saussure, a founder of modern linguistics: “a science that studies the life of signs within society.” The narrator quips, “Yep, that’s all,” before providing more detail.) It’s an appealing medley of detective story, satire, and theory. Binet, who is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on literature, gets the balance among the three mostly right, although there are moments when the satire becomes so outrageous (although not necessarily implausible) that it begins to grate. Other times, the humor depends on a literary game of spot-the-reference, and will be lost on the reader unfamiliar with, say, who Judith Butler is, or the intricacies of the French political landscape circa 1980. But spotting these references is also fun, and there’s always that international conspiracy to push things along.

The Seventh Function of Language, then, succeeds in creating an intellectually stimulating milieu and delivering an entertaining narrative set within it. But this novel misses a mark that HHhH hit squarely. Where HHhH was concerned with the question of what it means to reconstruct history, The Seventh Function revels in blurring the lines between fact and fiction. HHhH’s narrator wrestles with what should be included in his story: “If I were to mention all the plots in which Heydrich had a hand, this book would never be finished,” he writes. In another passage, he attempts to determine what color Heydrich’s car was—a detail that is simultaneously incidental and momentous because it reveals so little and so much at the same time. However, the narrator of The Seventh Function is far less present in the text, and far less conflicted. Referring to the accident that takes Barthes’s life, the narrator writes: “they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very good reason that, until today, no one understands anything about it.” That is to say: the narrator knows, and will tell us, even if the details are occasionally hazy. A novelist is free to invent at will—this is fiction, after all. And every novel that incorporates historical detail (which is, essentially, every novel) signals a tension between history and story, a grounding in “real” life that is also a departure from it. But HHhH’s exploration of the space between what actually happened and what can be said about what happened gave it a depth and a seriousness that The Seventh Function lacks.

Ultimately, what makes The Seventh Function worth reading is the interplay between its wild plot and its discussion of ideas drawn from semiology, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and linguistics. There’s an intellectual playground in this novel, and if some (or most) of the stories turn out to be inventions, well, that’s part of the point. The epigraph, a quote from the philosopher Jacques Derrida (who also appears in the book), reads: “There are interpreters everywhere. Each speaking his own language, even if he has some knowledge of the language of the other. The interpreter’s ruses have an open field and he does not forget his own interests.” One way to read Derrida’s quote is as suggesting that the link which leads from sign to referent is always contextual and always contains some invention. HHhH is the better novel for its deeper and more nuanced exploration of this idea. Its tensions are more enduring, and its struggles are more heartfelt. Still, The Seventh Function’s madcap take is welcome, too. It’s less serious, but there’s way more sex.