BooksFriday, February 17, 2017
Elementary, my dear chief superintendent
For The Herald
Here’s a brilliant novel that goes The Name of the Rose one better. Like the latter, it’s a whodunnit (moreover, a who’s-still-doing-it) in which semiotics plays a part — not that the reader needs to know anything about that hermetic discipline before starting out, because it provides explanations, clear and even funny, as it goes along. But in Umberto Eco’s best-seller, set in a mediaeval monastery, the study of signs and communication was somewhat of an underlying layer to the story; it was possible to read it through as no more than a thriller, without one’s attention being too openly drawn to the fact that “this is a sign of that.”
The Seventh Function of Language, on the other hand, is set squarely in the world of 20th-century semiologists and linguists, and their fields of study are not only the manifest subject of the story but provide procedures by which the plot advances.
Not to fret. The author, French university professor and writer Laurent Binet, uses a handy device to come to the reader’s aid. The police investigation of what may or may not have been a murder is headed by a chief inspector (commissaire) who, though no fool (he’s just an ordinary reactionary flic), knows nothing about semiotics. So he has to commandeer the services of an expert to put things into plain language for him — and thus for the reader as well.
It’s like a topsy-turvy Sherlock Holmes-Watson duo: here it’s the assistant who makes the amazing deductions on the basis of outward indications, and who explains matters to the team leader.
This book is a great opportunity for people who may feel mildly guilty because they intended to look into all that stuff spouted by philosophers and semiologists like Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser, but never got around to it. Binet has written a combination primer and spoof about people who go on about things like “the hyperpower of the signifier.”
Eco himself is, of course, in the story too (there’s a jokey “clue” about how he got the idea for Rose) — and he gets off lightly. Binet combines events that actually happened in 1980, like Barthes being killed by a van and Althusser strangling his wife, with things that he blithely makes up, like the deaths of others who definitely lived on, and he is venomous (and in other times would be taken as libellous) towards some members of those rarefied circles, particularly Julia Kristeva and her husband Philippe Sollers.
Anyway, as the storyline chases an alleged language tool that can give people a kind of superpower, it brings in international conspiracies, French (and US) politics, Italian idiosyncrasies and more, spilling over with erudition on subjects from art to tennis, and offering many set-piece chapters, like those referring to French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and his then-challenger François Mitterrand, that can go straight into anthologies of sly or caustic humour.
The pace may flag a bit around mid-book — the part taking place in the US, in particular, and a couple of the encounters staged by a mysterious organisation of demented debaters, could have been condensed a bit — at least in the view of those who read the story mainly for the action. Those willing to savour the intellectual flavours may feel otherwise. In any case, the pace picks up brightly again towards the end.
There are moments of disagreeable violence. Also a lot of highly unreticent sex. Curiously, the Argentine-Spanish word for it is used throughout, in the translation in the present edition, even while the Spanish of Spain is used for other things, like chisme for “gadget” or boli for “pen.” Maybe it’s a trend. What hopefully isn’t a trend is the disregard for the difference in spelling between “este” and “éste”, “solo” and “sólo,” “el” and “él.”
Through extensive, untranslated quotations, the author shows off his knowledge of mainstream Italian, Neapolitan, and English, albeit with two or three mistakes in the latter, as in “some philosophers so-called continental.” It’s also unfathomable how a character asks why a sought-after document is in French — since nobody has seen it, how does he know? Or why he later stops the cop from grabbing it when he can.
These things are easy to forgive in a suspenseful book that’s also capable of extracting subtle comedy from everything from the hospital interrogation of a dying lecturer to the carefully calibrated height of the folders on President Giscard’s desk. (Too low, and visitors will think he doesn’t do anything; too high, and he’ll appear to be overwhelmed).