Posts Tagged ‘Laurent Binet’

The 7th Function of Language

April 8, 2018

Laurent Binet’s first novel, HHhH, centred on the assassination of prominent Nazi Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, though it also contained Binet’s discussion of his research and reflections on the fictionalisation of historical figures. Five years later in The 7th Function of Language, we have a novel which not only fictionalises Roland Barthes (and an enormous cast of other semiologists, structuralists and literary theorists) but goes one step further in creating a playful, but entirely unlikely, plot around his death in 1980, when he was indeed run down by a laundry van as he is at the beginning of the novel:

“His body makes the familiar, dull thudding sound of flesh meeting metal, and it rolls over the tarmac like a rag doll. Passers-by flinch. This afternoon – 25 February 1980 – they cannot know what has just happened in front of their eyes. For the very god reason that, until today, no one knows anything about it.”

There is nothing particularly suspicious about the accident but Superintendent Jacques Bayard is sent to investigate as Barthes met with Socialist candidate for president, Francois Mitterand, shortly before and “it is the habit of Renseignements Generaux to gather information about everything, and especially, during the run-up to the election campaign, about Francois Mitterand.” He discovers that papers Bathes had on him at the time of the accident have gone missing.

The novel is imbued with an enormous sense of fun. Realising, after an interview with Foucault (“Roland Barthes is dead.” “But who killed him?” “The system, of course!”) that he is in need of some expert help, Bayard enlists a young university lecturer, Simon Herzog, who is, of course, decoding James Bond when we first meet him. He then uses his semiological skills to apply Holmesian deduction to Bayard:

“You fought in Algeria; you’ve been married twice; you are separated from your second wife; you have a daughter under twenty, with whom you had a difficult relationship; you voted for Giscard in both rounds of the last presidential election, and you’ll do the same again next year…”

There are also more subtle touches, such as the Citroen DS, from Barthes’ famous essay in Mythologies, which begins to follow the main characters around.

Binet is also no respecter of the many real-life characters which feature in the novel. When we next meet Foulcault he is in a gay sauna being fellated by an Arab – “He points at his crotch: ‘This is not a pipe, as Magritte would say, ha, ha!’” – and he is portrayed throughout as more interested in carnality than academia. Julia Kristeva is a Bulgarian spy – something which, in a bizarre twist, has been alleged as fact this year. And having dealt with the French intelligentsia, Binet ensures the investigators need to travel to Italy (to meet Umberto Eco) and the USA (for a conference featuring Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault, with a guest appearance by Chomsky).

The McGuffin which allows all this to take place is the titular 7th function of language. Eco speculates it relates to the performative function of language, “the capacity that certain pronouncements have to produce … what they pronounce through the very fact of their pronouncement.”

“Whoever had the mastery and knowledge of such a function would be virtually master of the world.”

The secret of this 7th function exists in different forms (written, recorded, memorised) which are sought by various parties, both to use and destroy. Into this mix Binet throws the Logos Club, a secret organisation which descends from ancient Greece:

“It developed as a highly compartmentalised secret society, structured like a pyramid, with its leaders – a body of ten members known as the sophists – presided over by a Protagoras Magnus, practising their rhetorical talents which they used essentially in the service of their political ambitions.”

Promotion is won through debate, but defeat can lead to the loss of a finger, or worse.

Parts of the novel are genuinely filled with tension, for example when Simon is involved in a car chase which ends with a crash and a misfiring pistol. And much of it is amusing, though probably more so if you are either an academic or interested in French politics. It is, though, over-long, the initial thrill of finding intellectuals embroiled in a pot-boiler having long worn off by page 400, and neither Bayard nor Simon having the depth to carry the reader’s interest to the end. Unlikely, then, to make the short list, but also suggesting that Binet will be a writer whose next project will always be worth looking out for.


April 8, 2013


HHhH is Laurent Binet’s first novel and it has already won a couple of prizes in his native France. The title, as you can see needed no translation – although as it stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, perhaps it does. ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’ is apparently one of those witticisms for which the Nazis were famous, and it is Heydrich’s life story that Binet seeks to tell in his novel. Or rather his death story, as the real focus is his attempted assassination by Czech parachutists. Except that one of them was Slovak – we’d better stick to the facts, something Binet very much insists on: though he is ostensibly writing a novel he doesn’t want to fictionalise anything:

“At 9.00am the first German tank enters the city.

Actually I don’t know if it was a tank that first entered Prague. The most advanced troops seem mostly to have driven motorbikes with side cars.”

HHhH, then, is also about Binet’s attempt to write a novel about Heydrich’s assassination without inventing anything. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” as someone once said (Twain? Hemingway? But that would be a fact so it probably doesn’t matter). Binet seems determined that they will. He begins by immersing himself in research:

“Months flow past, they become years and all that time this story keeps growing inside me. And while my life passes…the shelves of my apartment fill up with books on the Second World War….I get the feeling that my thirst for documentation, healthy to begin with, is becoming a little bit dangerous – a pretext, basically, for putting off the moment when I have to start writing.”

Of course, the opposite is true – it gives him something else to write about. In between slices of information about Heydrich’s life, Czech and Slovak politics, the Nazis’ rise and the move towards war, Binet inserts the jam of his authorial anxiety:

“There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than this kind of dialogue – reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history.”

Binet benefits from having a great story to tell – both the story of Heydrich, an emblematic Nazi and one of the primary architects of the Final Solution (our fascination with this era in European history can be seen from the fact that three of the ten long listed European books for the IFFP focus on it) and the attempt by to assassinate him (carried out by locals who were parachuted in from the UK). This has a little of everything – tension, bravery, disaster (even a jammed gun!), betrayal. Whether you enjoy this book or not will be very much down to your appreciation of Binet’s approach to this story.

While such ‘faction’ techniques are also to be found in Dasa Drndic’s Trieste and, in a different context, in Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque, here I found them less effective. It didn’t seem to allow Binet to reveal any depth of understanding of Heydrich or of the parachutists, or of any of the protagonists in the story – conversely he seemed quite intent in keeping his distance. He also didn’t involve his own life in any significant way – something that would have at least given the novel another dimension. Of course, perhaps I am a little spoilt having read the brilliant Frank Kuppner’s A Very Quiet Street and Something Very Like Murder many years ago – both excellent examples of this genre. Binet’s novel remains very readable (as I said, it has a great story to tell) but you can’t help but wonder, if he is so worried about fictionalising history, why write a novel at all?