books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Works in Translation

“The Seventh Function of Language” by Laurent Binet (translated by Sam Taylor)

“Bayard listens without understanding, rocked gently by the tone, which is simultaneously didactic and projected, melodious in its way, underpinned by a sense of rhythm, an extremely precise use of silences and punctuation.
          Does this guy earn more than he does?
          ‘Between this system of law that governs actions and relates to a subject of will, and consequently the indefinite repeatability of the error, and the outline of the salvation and perfection that concerns the subjects, which implies a temporal scansion and an irreversibility, there is, I think, no possible integration . . . ‘
          Yes, without a doubt. Bayard is unable to suppress the bitterness that instinctively makes him detest this voice. The police have to battle people like this for taxpayers’ funds. They’re functionaries, like him, except that he deserves to be remunerated by society for his work.”

Have you ever read a mystery novel that covers the basics of linguistics and semiotic IMG_0796theory while featuring France’s intellectual elite of the 1980s? Yeah, me neither . . .until now. French writer Laurent Binet’s newest novel is nerd paradise, an academician’s dream. Or is it? Binet has constructed a crime mystery story around the death of Roland Barthes, one of the world’s foremost linguists, and his contemporaries; Derrida, Foucault, and Eco feature prominently among this cut-throat crowd of intellectuals.

“The Seventh Function of Language” is, surprisingly, fun, though it is certainly easy to get mired by the deep dives into theory and rhetoric. Binet is doubtless poking fun at intellectuals while ostensibly speaking their language. I am no erudite scholar, and so my world view takes no offense, but I wonder how academicians would receive their heroes’ portrayal as often childish gluttons. To me, the irreverence was mostly charming.

“The Seventh Function of Language” feels like the spawn of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” and Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code”, only it lacks the complexity and credentials of Eco and the dumbed-down mass appeal of Brown. Somewhere in between these two immensely successful works, Binet’s novel is readable, entertaining, and likely to have a much more limited audience and lifespan. With often lengthy (and likely oversimplified) explanations of theory and prolific name dropping of intellectuals you have heard of but likely haven’t studied at any great depth, “The Seventh Function of Language” scratches the itch for a smart mystery, letting its readers feel clever and learned while not actually requiring them to be so.

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing a complimentary Advance Reader’s Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.


4 thoughts on ““The Seventh Function of Language” by Laurent Binet (translated by Sam Taylor)”

  1. I haven’t read this book yet, but your review confirms that it’s exactly what I expect it to be. I’m sure it will hit the spot when I am in the right mood for it. In terms of the mystery, is it any good?


  2. I spent almost twenty years teaching language studies to university students so I’m not sure whether I am exactly the right audience for this or exactly the wrong one. I might wait and see if a copy floats into view in the local library and if the first couple of pages take my fancy take it home.

    Liked by 1 person

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