February 1980, after lunch with François Mitterrand, promising politician of the socialists and candidate for the 1981 presidential election, the literary theorist Roland Barthes is run over by a lorry and later dies in hospital. What first looks like an ordinary car accident, turns out to be malicious murder. But who would want to murder Barthes? Superintendent Jacques Bayard has to investigate and soon understands that he does not understand anything at all of what all these intellectuals talk about. He needs help and contacts Simon Herzog, a young lecturer on linguistics who not only has to translate the theoretical paraphernalia but also helps him to unravel the mystery of the 7th function of language.
Forming an opinion on Laurent Binet’s novel is not easy. Well, actually, I really enjoyed it, but I can easily understand people who just hate it and find it boring. So, what does it need for a reader to indulge in it?
- If you are a linguist – jackpot. The novel is full of linguistic theory. Having at least a slight notion of what structuralism, deconstruction, semiotics and of course the communicative functions of language are, helps a lot to enjoy the novel since you do not have to pay too much attention to the theoretical passages (which will certainly help if you do not know anything about it).
- An interest in French intellectuals, or intellectuals gathering in Paris at the end of the 1970s/beginning of the 1980s. We meet Julia Kristeva, Philippe Sollers, BHL, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Eco, Foucault – also PPDA plays a minor role – and also Derrida and Searle pop up. Seeing them interact is just hilarious. At least as long as you find them interesting.
- French politics: Giscard d’Estaing vs. Mitterrand. Two of the greatest politicians of the second half of the 20th century which could hardly differ more than they did.
- Secret Societies of scholars – Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, whatever.
Yes, it is a kind of crime novel centred around intellectuals. The crime aspect is not that relevant, there is some kind of suspense – you do want to know what is behind all this – but much more it is a brilliant way of integrating philosophy, linguistics, literary studies etc. into a fictional plot. Binet is a mastermind when it comes to presenting the theory and directly using it within the story, he plays with it and with the reader and if you are ready to play the game, you can have real fun. Apart from this, I really enjoyed his style of writing, it is full of irony, playfulness and spirit:
“25 February 1980 has not yet told us everything. That’s the virtue of a novel: it’s never too late.” (pos. 2236)
“We have no way of knowing what Simon dreams about because we are not inside his head, are we?” (pos. 3450)
And the most amusing comment from poor Simon Herzog is:
“I think I’m trapped in a fucking novel.” (pos. 3899)
For me, just the perfect combination of entertainment (the characters are masterly drawn) and intellectually challenging.