Sophisticated, post-modern and occasionally fun
I admit I hadn't given Roland Barthes, 'the father of semiotics', much of a second thought since University yet there I was in Hatchard's St Pancras bookstore seeing his knowing portrait on the front of Lauren Binet's new novel The 7th Function of Language. I was transported back to reading his seminal book Mythologies (1957) in an attempt to keep my Masters thesis on track.
The novel is based on a real historical event in 1980 in which Barthes was knocked over by a laundry truck on the Rue des Ecoles in Paris after having lunch with Francois Mitterrand (then socialist candidate for the French presidency). Whilst the event itself did take place the novel imagines a fictional world around the incident in an international conspiracy romp somewhere between Dan Brown and Ian Fleming.
Investigating the case are Detective Jaques Bayard and young semiotician Simon Herzog who join forces to investigate their murder theory whilst uncovering the secrets around Barthes claim that there exists a 7th function of language; that of powerful and all controlling persuasion. The adventure takes the pair from gay saunas to literary salons as they encounter the grand-fathers of postmodernism, Michael Foucoult, Jean-Paul Satre and Umberto Eco hopping around the globe from Paris to Bologna, Venice and Ithaca. With the KGB and Bulgarian secret service also in hot pursuit the pair run into trouble at every corner. Its exhausting, occasionally hilarious but on the whole all a bit too confusing.
Binet's blend of crime and academia leaves the reader at risk of being a little short changed. Those looking for a high octane thriller will want more from the Logos Club story line and might find the narrative plodding in places whilst those craving a dose of semiotic theory will find that the novel only scratches the surface.
Where Binet does succeed however, is in building a work of fiction around a real life event. With social media driving fear and distrust around 'news' (and 'fake news') Barthes theories around the use of language and symbols to change behaviour and minds is startlingly relevant. The result is a curious novel about 1980s academia that's firmly in the zeitgeist.
The 7th Function of Language is a sophisticated, post-modern and occasionally fun novel from a Prix Goncourt winning author whose attention to period detail (including lobsters on leashes) is worthy of Barthes himself.
Translation duties fall to Sam Taylor who is on somewhat of a roll this year having also translated Lullaby by Leila Slimani.
The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet and translated by Sam Taylor published by Harvill Secker, 400 pages.
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