Tue. Jun 18th, 2019

The personal is political

Book Review: “Submission” Michel Houellebecq

WITH all that’s going on in France right now- the Yellow Vests and Emmanuel Macron losing in the European Election to National Rally- many are already starting to look ahead to what is sure to be a pivotal 2022 Presidential Election there.

All attention is so focused on the UK and Brexit, that people often miss the similar convulsions going on in France at present, one of the big players in the European Union and a country which will be crucial in shaping the future of Europe over the next few years.

Satirical novel charts the decline of the west

And it is that French Presidential Election in 2022 which forms the backdrop to this darkly satirical novel by the enfant-terrible of French literature, Michel Houellebecq.

Submission”  tells the tale of anti-hero Francois,  a world-weary and cynical university lecturer, who finds that the circumstances of his personal life happen to collide full on with the Presidential Elections held in France in 2022.

During that election, the socialist left and centre-right  eventually join forces with the new Muslim Brotherhood party to defeat the forces of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which then paves the way for the Presidency of Mohammed Ben Abbas, the charismatic and moderate leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. France is transformed almost overnight.

Charismatic new leader transforms France over night

The novel is full of Houellebecq’s trademark sardonic and often hilarious commentary  on the shallowness and narcissism of modern life, and the loss of meaning for so many people that is such a feature of life in the West today.

At one point he complains about his students: ” Doctoral students tended to be exhausting. For them. it was all starting to mean something, and for me nothing mattered except which Indian dinner I’d microwave that evening(Chicken Byriani, Chicken Tikka Massala? Chicken Rogan Josh?….”

It also features some brutally insightful writing,  as when he mentions a female character witnessing  a verbal exchange  between two men: “That odd ritual, neither buggery or duel, but something in between”

Francois’s dissolute and shambolic personal life is used as a metaphor for the dissolute nature of modern life and the breakdown of western society in general. He undertakes a series of meaningless sexual encounters, and has a semi-detached connection to everybody in life including a glacial-like relationship with his own parents, whose deaths no more fazes him than hearing that his favourite cheese is out of stock at his local supermarket.

There’s a perpetual air of guilt and self-loathing about Francois-quite similar in fact to the current frame of mind of people in the West today.

The closest relationship he has in life is with an obscure French author, Karl Husymans, the subject of his PhD dissertation, which has subsequently provided him with a living teaching at the Sorbonne university. This  on-going relationship with the dead author at least affords him some relief from what he sees as the complete absurdities of modern life.

Perpetually offended brigade wrongfooted

Houellebecq is of course notorious for being controversial. And when some of the perpetually-offended brigade got wind of the fact that his new novel would be about Islam (“Submission”), they were up on their soap boxes  expecting an anti-Islam tirade, which was obviously something that had to be denounced out of hand, before the copies of his book had actually reached the bookshops of France.

But, Houlebecq brilliantly subverts people’s expectations in this novel by turning his fire not on Islam at all but rather on the superficial and self-destructive nature of modern western society.  He subverts those expectations even further by presenting a future where Islam manages to to conquer France, not at the point of a sword, but by its own version of the “velvet revolution”  which overcomes  secularism with ridiculous ease.

One of the worrying themes that has been doing the rounds over the past few years is that there will be some form of war between Islam and European civilization in future. The spate of Islamic attacks on mainland Europe, the  record levels of immigration into Europe, and the vastly superior Muslim birth-rates as compared to European birth-rates have of course heightened these fears.

And for parts of the novel, Houllebecq builds up this dark sense of foreboding, describing armed skirmishes between opposing political  groupings, and the cancelling of one stage of voting in the Presidential Election following an armed raid on a polling station.

Alarmed by all this, Francois heads out of Paris for what he perceives to be the relative safety of south-west France. Once again, Houellebecq’s mix of darkness and hilarity kicks in to relieve the tension:

I knew nothing of the south-west really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war.Though of course I could be wrong.”

A different type of revolution

There’s one scene where Francois convinces himself and convinces the reader that this civil war has indeed arrived as he drives along what seems to be a completely empty motorway, the signals of all radio channels have been blocked in his car and he stumbles across a ransacked service station, including a murdered staff member on the floor.

But, after expertly building up this sense of impending doom, the author then  wrongfoots us all by revealing that it is a completely different type of revolution being rolled out in France.

We learn that President Mohammed Ben Abbas has wrestled control of education in France,with the education system and universities Islamized- helped by dollops of money from Saudi Arabia. Ben Abbas also manages to slash unemployment levels in France by means of huge new subsidies awarded to families, which has seen women leaving the workplace in droves following his emphasis on restoring the “centrality and dignity of the family as the building block of society”.

The left, paralysed by Abbas’s multi-cultural background are powerless to resist this new agenda, which would of course be nigh on impossible for any usual politician to be able to pursue.

Even the crime levels have plunged in the new order ushered in by the magnetic Ben Abbas, who harbours ambitions of instigating a new  Holy Roman Empire throughout Europe, led by a newly-religicised French nation.

Accomodating himself with the new reality

At the end of the novel, our anti-hero, like millions of his compatriots has decided to accommodate himself peacefully with the new reality which has arrived in France almost overnight. Like his own literary hero, Huysymans,  he turns his back on a lifetime of dissolute living and converts to religion.

But of course, it’s not to Catholicism- the faith of his lifelong hero.  Rather, Francois has pragmatically converted to Islam, submitting to the inevitable. Consoling himself that his empty life will now be enlivened by the prospect of  four nubile and compliant wives which will come his way following his conversion to Islam. The new “velvet revolution” marches on.

The over-riding message of “Submission” is how astonishly  quickly society can change, and how equally quickly people can, despite themselves, also accommodate themselves to such changes.

It’s a subversive and thought-provoking novel on the kind of Europe that could lie ahead in the years to come in the tumultuous circumstances we find ourselves in. As the old Chinese proverb goes: “May you live in interesting times”.

“Submission” Michel Houellebecq, Vintage   £8.99

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