On Feb. 25, 1980, the celebrated French literary critic Roland Barthes was struck by a laundry van while crossing the street in Paris, later dying of his injuries. In August that same year, the Bologna train station was blown up by Italian terrorists, killing 85 people. Two months afterward, French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser strangled his sociologist wife, Hélène, supposedly in a fit of madness. The following May, Socialist Party candidate François Mitterrand beat incumbent Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to be elected president of France.
These are all, as far as history is concerned, discrete events. But could they actually be connected? What if Barthes — an authority on semiology, the study of signs and symbols — had discovered a linguistic secret of immense power, one for which people would kill? The pioneering structuralist Roman Jakobson had famously promulgated six functions to language, but he hinted at the possible existence of a seventh, one in which words acquired the persuasive force of incantations or magic spells. If a speaker knew how the seventh function operated, he or she could convince people of anything at all. One could potentially rule the world.
Like Umberto Eco’s conspiracy classic, “Foucault’s Pendulum,” or Zoran Zivkovic’s “Papyrus Trilogy,” Laurent Binet — a professor of French literature in Paris — has produced an intellectual thriller that will be catnip to serious readers. While it contains Bulgarian assassins, Japanese ninjas, a beautiful Russian agent, French politicians and several male prostitutes, its main characters are prominent European philosophers and cultural theorists, including Eco, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers.
In the wake of Barthes’s “accident,” Jacques Bayard — a member of the French police’s intelligence service — is ordered to look into the case. Why? Primarily because just before Barthes was run over, he attended a quiet lunch with Mitterrand (which is true). Secondarily because the victim’s keys, wallet and papers somehow went missing (also true). When Bayard asks if the critic had enemies, Foucault explodes:
“ ‘Of course! . . . All he had were enemies: the reactionaries, the middle classes, the fascists, the Stalinists, and, above all, the rancid old critics who never forgave him!’
“ ‘Forgave him for what?’
“ ‘For daring to think! For daring to question their outdated bourgeois ideas, for highlighting their vile normative functions, for showing them up for what they really were: prostitutes sullied by idiocy and compromised principles!’ ”
Realizing that he is out of his element, Bayard recruits help from a young academic named Simon Herzog, who not only understands words such as “normative,” but can also employ semiology to make amazing Sherlock Holmes-like deductions. Together they turn over Barthes’s apartment, search for a particular male prostitute at a crowded steam bath and study the crowd at the great critic’s funeral — but they never notice the black automobile that follows them everywhere or the workmen and police officers with missing fingers. Before long, as in many golden-age mysteries, various characters start to die while mumbling enigmatic words such as “Sophia,” “Elle sait” and “Echo.” None means what it seems.
Eventually, through a lead given by literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov, our two investigators make their way to Bologna, home of Eco, then merely a professor of semiology (though already thinking about what will become “The Name of the Rose”). There they learn more about a shadowy, centuries-old organization, a kind of intellectual version of “Fight Club,” at which people from all walks of life debate philosophical questions. Winners gain immense prestige, but the cost of losing is high. At one particularly erudite confrontation, the movie director Michelangelo Antonioni is pitted against an unprepossessing old woman; still another requires the group’s mysterious leader, known as the Great Protagoras, to face an upstart challenger.
The quest to identify Barthes’s murderer and discover the seventh function of language eventually takes Bayard and Herzog to an international conference at Cornell University. Besides all the French hotshots we’ve already met, attendees include Noam Chomsky, Paul de Man, Gayatri Spivak, Hélène Cixous, John Searle and Camille Paglia. Having been in graduate school at Cornell about this time, I can testify to the accuracy of Binet’s descriptions of the university and Ithaca, N.Y. One of my own dissertation advisers, Jeffrey Mehlman, makes a brief appearance, as does the ebullient Morris Zapp, the protagonist of David Lodge’s hilarious academic comedy “Small World.”
Before long, this Cornell section zeros in on an intense controversy between Searle and Derrida (based on fact), but it also features several steamy sex scenes and an hallucinatory Walpurgisnacht that blends a witches’ sabbath with “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” And still there’s more action to come: Did I mention the Red Brigades? The events in Venice during carnival? The election night revelations in Paris?
Like “HHhH,” Binet’s post-modernist novel about the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, “The Seventh Function of Language” doesn’t just tell a story. Binet is also exploring the relationship between fiction and reality. His opening sentence proclaims that “Life is not a novel”; he sometimes interjects his own first-person thoughts — “I wish Anthony Hopkins would reread this passage for us” — and his creation Simon Herzog periodically wonders if he might be a fictional character. To my mind, Binet doesn’t really do enough with these familiar metafictional tropes, and he’s much better at satire and suspense.
Still, such a small reservation hardly matters when there’s so much fun to be had in “The Seventh Function of Language,” compellingly brought into English by Sam Taylor. Foucault, and Sollers, in particular, come across as wildly comic figures. What’s more, Binet’s alternate — or possibly secret — history hints that there just might be more to the rise of Barack Obama than even Donald Trump could have imagined.
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By Laurent Binet
Translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Farrar Straus Giroux. 359 pp. $27