Tuesday 20 March 2018

Binet returns with ambitious but cluttered mystery

Thriller: The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet, Harvill Secker, pback, 390 pages, €15.99

Bold: Laurent Binet's debut HHhH was a hit
Bold: Laurent Binet's debut HHhH was a hit
7th Function of Language

Hilary A White

Bruce's Philosopher's Song saw Monty Python have a good old chuckle at the loftiest minds in human history by bringing them down to the level of a pub lock-in. Such comic egalitarianism would be applauded in France (the home of author Laurent Binet), where philosophers occupied a kind of rock-star status that saw them hounded by groupies and accruing tabloid column inches.

Binet, in case you'd forgotten, is the precocious property who was suddenly everywhere after the English language release of his debut HHhH in 2012. A meta-laced historical novel about the 1942 assassination of Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich, it sold by the bucketload and announced a bold new voice in contemporary fiction that laughed at the rulebook.

Similar deviance as well as dimension-warping is at work in this cluttered but admirably ambitious romp of a thing that reads like a thinking-man's Da Vinci Code, if such a thing were ever conceivable.

It expands some of the critical theories woven into his debut regarding the responsibilities of treating historical fact in novel form, and duly proceeds to set fire to them and dance on their ashes. Some of the time, this is hugely entertaining, laugh-out-loud stuff. Elsewhere, it is esoteric, wilfully highfalutin - if you've never considered linguistics or critical theory, you'll get a workout - and slippery of texture.

Readers of a certain disposition may also find a rather exploitative taint here, too. Many of Binet's cast of characters are real-life figures, here remoulded as players in a shady conspiracy that serves up beautiful Russian spies masquerading as nurses, clandestine societies, poison-tipped umbrellas and hilariously painted debauchery.

While this and the devilish humour with which he sends up the (imagined) petty jealousies, self-obsessions and idiosyncrasies of philosophical heavies such as Lacan, Foucault, Althusser, Chomsky and Kristeva are the novel's principal joys, he takes some enormous liberties. Take Althusser, who was never prosecuted for killing his wife in 1980. Here, Binet works the incident into a plot thread.

The embarkation point is the death of renowned literary critic Roland Barthes, the Frenchman who wrote the pioneering essay The Death of the Author theory. Barthes was hit by a service truck in 1980 and died a month later in hospital. Binet reconfigures this as being no accident. His Barthes had in his possession a paper detailing a higher facility of language that would grant the user immeasurable powers of persuasion. On the hunt for this and Barthes' killers are Bayard, a surly Paris superintendent, and Herzog, a meek semiotics postgraduate.

The pair trot the globe, dodging goons, searching for Umberto Eco (whose name is gasped by a murdered lead) and (in the case of Bayard and, indeed, ourselves) scratching their heads. The nature of that core McGuffin means there are dense passages that must be endured, but this is tempered by pulpy tropes and the agility of Binet's wit. A frustrating but ultimately worthwhile cocktail.

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