The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet review – who killed Roland Barthes?

Semiotics meets the whodunnit in a satiric romp through Parisian intellectual life from the author of HHhH

All this must be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel,” the literary critic and theorist wrote in his 1975 autobiography, Roland Barthes. “Life is not a novel,” Laurent Binet counters in the opening line of his new novel, one that asks who might have killed Barthes, and why.

But Barthes wasn’t murdered, you might protest; he was knocked over by a laundry truck while crossing the Rue des Ecoles, and died a month later. Instead of a novel in the form of an autobiography, The 7th Function of Language is a whodunnit without a crime, in which one of the characters investigating the death strongly (and rightly) begins to suspect he is a character in a novel.

Binet’s first novel, HHhH (2010), was about the assassination of the Nazi security chief Reinhard Heydrich at the hands of two Czech resistance fighters. In that book Binet was a lively authorial presence, stipulating where the historical record ended and where he, as novelist, resorted to inventing conversations or motives. The 7th Function works the other way round. Binet specifically doesn’t want us to think the events really transpired, so he loads up the novel with fake history: not only was Barthes not murdered, Jacques Derrida didn’t die in 1980, nor (we presume) did the writer and critic Philippe Sollers have his balls cut off after losing a debate to Umberto Eco.

The ethical stakes in HHhH were clear: when applied to the Holocaust, novelistic conventions feel trite, gimmicky. Writing a novel about a real person who lived and died heroically is like reducing him (as Binet puts it) “to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature”. Reading The 7th Function, you have to ask why, for an ambitious novelist so invested in narrative ethics, does it matter who committed an imaginary crime against a real figure? Why play the game of history in reverse?

A postmodern hybrid of other texts, blending the real and the fictional while making no attempt to distinguish between them, The 7th Function incorporates Barthes’s own writings, those of other theorists, characters from other novels, and television news reports taken from the night of his death. Throughout the novel, Binet invokes Barthes’s 1957 essay collection Mythologies, which looks at the way artefacts of culture – such as the Citroën DS, or red wine – accrued certain meanings in postwar French society. Using this technique, Simon, a young academic enlisted by the detective, Bayard, coolly assesses the older man’s military service, marital status and sociocultural background:

These objects also possess a symbolic value… as if they could speak, if you like: they tell us things […] your manner of dressing signals your profession: you wear a suit, which indicates an executive job, but your clothes are cheap, which implies a modest salary and/or an absence of interest in your appearance; so you belong to a profession in which presentation doesn’t matter, or not very much. Your shoes are badly scuffed, and you came here in a car, which signifies that you are not deskbound - you are out and about in your job. An executive who leaves his office is very likely to be assigned some kind of inspection work.

Semiotics is a lot like detective work, Simon knows; but the proposition works the other way as well. Bayard knows the value of the police card he proffers, and its power to compel people to talk. Beyond the apparent conflict between academic speak (which relies on metaphor) and administrative language (which relies on “facts”), both the policeman and the semiologist want to “understand reality”.

The 7th Function is a satiric romp through the upper echelons of Parisian intellectual life, indicting anyone – Sollers, for example – who takes the signified more seriously than the signifier. Yet it also has a serious point to make about the power of language to shape reality; the “magic” seventh linguistic function of the title has to do with the performative power of language not only to decode or persuade, but enact. I don’t want to give away the plot, since this is a detective novel, but after the past year in American politics, when memes have become dangerous speech acts, Binet’s novel is incredibly timely.

It is also very entertaining, like a dirty Midnight in Paris for the po-mo set; look out for Bernard Henri-Lévy getting fondled by Lacan’s mistress at a dinner party hosted by Julia Kristeva, or Judith Butler in a threesome with Bayard and Hélène Cixous. Readers without an intimate knowledge of French theory should not feel they need to brush up on Discipline and Punish before diving in. Readers who are familiar with Foucault will still be a little startled to find him being fellated in a gay sauna on page 45.

But in the end, The 7th Function of Language isn’t (only) playing for lowbrow/highbrow laughs; it’s a mise en scène of conflicting ideas about Frenchness. In an election year that saw Marine Le Pen get dangerously close to the French presidency, Binet’s postmodern policier asks where the nation is going, and what kind of car it will drive to get there.

• Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse is published by Chatto. The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet (Harvill Secker, £16.99). To order a copy for £12.74, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.


Lauren Elkin

The GuardianTramp

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