Author(s): Laurent Binet
Roland Barthes, one of the twentieth-century's towering literary figures, 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, who is 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? That document was the key to 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 global chase that takes them from the corridors of power and academia to backstreet saunas and midnight rendezvous. What they discover is a global conspiracy involving the President, murderous Bulgarians and a secret international debating society. In the world of intellectuals and politicians, everyone is a suspect. And who can you trust when the idea of truth itself is at stake?
Popular culture rightly feels threatened by structuralist criticism, but it has only its own existing weapons (and not the weapon of theory) with which to respond and its understanding of the threat posed upon it is necessarily vague. When Roland Barthes was killed by a laundry van when crossing the road in 1980, his afterlife was up for grabs*. Could this incident be an opportunity to strike back at semiotics through its most vulnerable aspect, the semioticians? What if these philosophers were made to behave in a book, now that they no longer exist in the world, as cartoon caricatures of philosophers? How about introducing a detective, an ordinary fictional detective, resembling or not resembling, who knows, a real detective, who begins to discover that Barthes was killed as part of a high-level international intrigue for the sake of some papers he had written on the seventh function of language, its capacity, when correctly loaded, to irresistibly persuade whoever it is pointed at (useful, at a popular-cultural level). Of course, a detective, like a semiotician, is on a trail of clues and signs, the difference being that a detective believes that behind the signs lies a single story whereas the semiotician knows that interpretation will never exhaust the sign. Which approach is more useful? Which is more true? The more this popular-cultural detective corrals within the limits of his investigations the philosophers who are for him the stand-ins for their philosophy, the more he lays himself open to interpretation from beyond those limits. The satiriser becomes the satirical representation of a satiriser, perhaps for the very objects of his satire. Theory thus ducks the long arm of the law, but this too comes at a cost, the loosening of the bond between the signifier and the signified. Ouch. Structuralist criticism rightly feels threatened by post-structuralist criticism, but it has only its own existing weapons with which to respond and its understanding of the threat posed upon it is necessarily vague.
* (Barthes was implicated in the death of the author in 1967 but was released without charge as the body was never found. Although this was a cold case by 1980, the possibility of his death being a revenge killing warrants further examination.)
"A playful conspiracy thriller." Guardian, 2017 Books of the Year "A rollicking crime caper about the death of Roland Barthes. It had me rolling on the floor of the Paris Metro when I read it." -- Alex Preston Observer, 2017 Books of the Year "[A] global conspiracy thriller involving French philosopher Roland Barthes and a deadly new language." Metro, 2017 Books of the Year
Laurent Binet lives and works in France. His first novel, HHhH, was an international bestseller which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt du premier roman, among other prizes.