When Julia Kristeva's father died, she turned to crime writing. Sara Wajid interrogates her motives and uncovers her belief in inquiry in the face of religious extremism
What a gaffe. People cried out in disbelief at the French Institute as speaker Marian Hobson clumsily gave away the ending of the new whodunnit by Julia Kristeva to an audience of hard-core Kristeva fans, many of whom were angrily brandishing their hardback copies of Murder in Byzantium . Kristeva did her best to look gracious about the blunder, but the slightest flash of displeasure on her beautiful face unleashed a fiercely protective howl from the crowd; there was love in that howl.
Kristeva's status as one of the most prolific and respected living European intellectuals was sealed when she won the Holberg Prize (known as the Norwegian Nobel) in 2004. She was born in Bulgaria in 1941 and in 1965 fled from Stalinist communism to Paris, where she is now professor of linguistics at the Universite de Paris VII. She is principally known as a feminist psychoanalyst and key player in the major theoretical shifts of the 1960s and 1970s in structuralist thought, alongside Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault - not for her writing of gory detective fiction.
Murder in Byzantium features a professor of human migrations and his obsessive research into Byzantium to find his family roots. He is writing a novel about Anna Comnena, a Byzantine princess and erudite historian who embodies the finest qualities of a sophisticated culture negotiating its place between two clashing "civilisations". Kristeva, who is herself synonymous with the "pure" or "high theory" of the 1960s and 1970s, has described Byzantium as "the time of resisting barbarity through questioning, anxiety, splitting hairs". Kristeva suggests we look to Byzantine culture as a model for contemporary European dilemmas, particularly about cultural diversity and conflict resolution.
But can "hair-splitting" cultural theory cut it any more? In After Theory , Terry Eagleton writes about how theory evolved in the 1980s and 1990s into something "more accommodating, apolitical, status-quo-friendly". He adds that "just as Western philosophers were kicking away their own foundations, rejoicing in the arbitrary, ungrounded nature of their cultural values, fundamentalism was rearing its ugly head... Our problem is to combat fundamentalism with something less brittle than postmodern relativism and scepticism."
Kristeva disagrees: "Inventing theory was a very exciting adventure. We started it to answer existential questions, not only to interpret texts or to advance our position in the university. Then, when you're trying to apply it, it is open to vulgarisations, political correctness and so on, and the result is that people become fed up with abstractions and complicated notions, and it becomes something that neither meets students'
needs nor answers social problems. But theory has some universal basis, and the situation in the world today doesn't make it old-fashioned or incapable of developing. I'll give you an example: in France we set up the Institute of Contemporary Thought, where we bring together people from literary theory, the history of sciences, Asian studies, biology and psychoanalysis to address issues such as the crisis of religion or the implications of artificial procreation. We can't deal with these things without a theoretical framework. It's not that we don't need theory any more."
She makes a compelling case for the application of theory to worldly concerns -and you don't get much more worldly than murder. Kristeva appears as a character in the novel, which reminds the reader of the comic gap in structuralist thought between the populist genre and her public profile as an intellectual; Kristeva writing a blockbuster is on a par with Germaine Greer appearing on Celebrity Big Brother .
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education highlights a broad trend for literary theorists away from "the more pure textuality of deconstruction at its peak" and redefining "theory in a way that reconnects it to bigger ideas", along with the reintroduction of concerns such as ethics. Can Kristeva's use of the detective novel to frame her philosophies be read in this light?
She turned to the form after her father's death. "In September 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, my father was killed in a Bulgarian hospital. He went to have a small surgical operation and died there. I found out that people there experimented on old people. They tried out some new surgical procedures. My father was a very religious person, but to avoid any religious celebration of his death, the communists decided that religious people should be burnt; he was cremated, which was against his beliefs. For me that was a big shock and when I was going through the mourning period I decided that the detective novel genre was the best way of dealing with it. Freud said that human society is based on a crime committed together - he was thinking of the symbolic killing of the father (the Oedipus story), about religion and so on - but the details of my father's death made me feel that there was crime beneath a lot of our political experience."
The danger of religious extremism is a key theme of Murder in Byzantium , which centres on the weird New Pantheon sect. Throughout the novel, the role of the "other", particularly the foreigner, is deeply ambivalent and highly charged. Kristeva has commented in the past that the wearing of hijab by French schoolgirls is leading to a sort of schizophrenia, "a psychic catastrophe" and "to states of violence". To my ears, this analysis seems dogmatic and an example of aggressive liberal secularism, inhibiting the acceptance of Muslims as equal citizens.
She is keen to contextualise her position. "There is a great cultural tradition in France of ' laïcité ' [separation of church and state]. When I see Muslim girls who go to school to learn about universal values such as freedom, women's freedom, sexual freedom who then go back to their families and are given another view of human experience and a lot of pressure, they experience this splitting. The result is very often some problem with their academic work and symptoms of melancholia. How do we deal with this? I think that we have to recognise their right to their own feelings and religions as a private experience but say that this should not be brought into the public sphere or it will become a space of fighting between religions."
She adds: "Some members of the secular intelligentsia who are not dogmatic want schools to introduce a history of religions, approaches to religion and explanations and comment on what anthropologists and others think of religion so this new generation has an interpretation that is not only the one the leaders of their religious group give them. They can then choose what they believe and have their own opinion."
But this seems to deny the possibility of any agency on the part of young Muslim women who wear hijab. What about those who wear it proudly, even defiantly, not at the urging of their parents or anyone else?
For Kristeva: "It is a reaction against colonialism and a symbol of pride, but maybe we could explain to them why they locate pride in this symbol and not in another. We are at a particular moment in human history when human beings are not asking the question 'who am I?', but 'to what do I belong?'
Identity is confused with belonging. The same thing happened in communism.
We were stripped of the necessity of thinking who we were or what freedom was because this was replaced by the notion of belonging. We belonged to communism and this would secure us against the bourgeois ideology, Nazism and so on. But this is a dead end because belonging is not about questioning."
For Kristeva, as one would expect of a good postmodernist, questioning is everything.
Murder in Byzantium: A Novel is published by Columbia University Press, Pounds 19.50.