Book Review: The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Funny, clever but challenging satire on French politics and intellectuals

7thfunctionAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: Roland Barthes is knocked down in a Paris street by a laundry van. It’s February 1980 and he has just come from lunch with Francois Mitterrand, a slippery politician locked in a battle for the Presidency. Barthes dies soon afterwards. History tells us it was an accident. But what if it were an assassination? What if Barthes was carrying a document of unbelievable, global importance? A document explaining the seventh function of language – an idea so powerful it gives whoever masters it the ability to convince anyone, in any situation, to do anything. Police Captain Jacques Bayard and his reluctant accomplice Simon Herzog set off on a chase that takes them from the corridors of power and academia to backstreet saunas and midnight rendezvous. What they discover is a worldwide conspiracy involving the President, murderous Bulgarians and a secret international debating society. In the world of intellectuals and politicians, everyone is a suspect. Who can you trust when the idea of truth itself is at stake?

Book Facts

  • Format: ebook
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital
  • No. of pages: 400
  • Publication date: 4th May 2017
  • Genre: Literary Fiction

To pre-order/purchase from click here (link provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)

My Review (3 out of 5)

If I tell you this book is about the death of the author of ‘The Death of the Author’ (Roland Barthes) plus one of the character wonders if he’s just a character in a novel, you’ll understand we’re well into metafictional territory here.   This is a funny, clever novel but at times it is a little too knowingly clever. Furthermore, if you have little knowledge of linguistic theory, its main players or French politics then I fear a lot of the jokes will be lost on you. This reader has a limited knowledge of linguistics from having studied for an MA in English but I reckon a lot of the satire and allusions went over my head.

As well as Barthes, there are parts for real life figures including Michael Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Sartre and Umberto Eco. Whether they would be flattered by their depiction as sex-obsessed, alcohol-fixated individuals constantly engaged in intellectual one-upmanship, I’m not sure.  Really, it comes across as a colossal payback for anyone who has ever had to struggle to understand linguistic theory or semiotics.

Think The Name of the Rose transported to the Paris of the 1980’s, with Inspector Bayard given the task of tracking down a document that reveals a previously unknown seventh function of language that will give the possessor unrivalled powers of persuasion (very useful if you want to become President of France). Bayard engages a side-kick in the person of linguistic lecturer, Simon Herzog, who attempts to help Bayard understand some of the concepts, with limited success it has to be said. Simon is probably the most engaging character in the book. I particularly liked the scenes where he uses James Bond films to explain linguistic concepts and decodes the educational backgrounds of drinkers in a bar from their gestures, in the manner of Sherlock Holmes with the man who loses the goose in ‘The Blue Carbuncle’.

I really wanted Julia Kristeva to be the culprit (and I’m not saying whether she was or wasn’t) just because I had to study her work as part of my OU course and found it almost impossible to understand.  Sorry, Julia.

In the end, the in-jokes and the satire rather overwhelmed the unravelling of the mystery so although I could admire the achievement and the author’s obvious erudition I couldn’t love this book. I admit I struggled through some of the passages.  I’d like to give a big shout-out to translator, Sam Taylor, who had to cope with some extremely abstruse linguistic and semiological concepts.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Random House UK, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Satirical, intellectual, playful

Try something similar…Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

LaurentBinetAbout the Author

The son of an historian, Laurent Binet was born in Paris, graduated from the University of Paris in literature and taught literature in the Parisian suburbs and eventually at University. He was awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman for his first novel, HHhH.

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