French controversialist Michel Houellebecq takes another tilt at Islam
Political fiction reflects French obsession with Islam, writes Lara Marlowe
Michel Houellebecq’s sixth novel, Submission, which goes on sale on January 7th, reflects France’s obsession with Islam in a cheeky, futuristic political fiction focused on two of Houellebecq’s favourite subjects, religion and women. File photograph: Tony Gentile/Reuters
With his wispy, greying hair, dark-circled eyes and sempiternal anorak, Michel Houellebecq looks like a scarecrow, or one of the amoral, sex-obsessed characters who people his controversial novels. His books are about the profound alienation of French society. They feature masturbation in peep shows, sex tourism to exotic countries, and murderous Muslims.
It’s disconcerting to think that Houellebecq is the contemporary French author best known outside France. He was awarded France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 2010. Albert Camus must have turned in his grave when Houellebecq’s US publisher, Random House, described him as “the most important French novelist since Camus”.
Houellebecq’s sixth novel, Submission, which goes on sale on January 7th, reflects France’s obsession with Islam in a cheeky, futuristic political fiction focused on two of Houellebecq’s favourite subjects, religion and women.
“With surgical precision, Houellebecq dissects the social body of an agonising world, performs open-heart surgery without anaesthesia, to uncover the most deeply buried fears and fantasms,” writes Libération newspaper’s literary critic Patrice Locmant.
Before it was even published, Submission became a cause célèbre, winning praise from the right and condemnation from the left. Jérôme Béglé of the conservative weekly Le Point sees the book as an attack on “the blindless, silence, passivity and complicity of centre left media and intellectuals” regarding the rise of political Islam.
The novel mixes real and fictional characters. Having defeated National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election, François Hollande leaves office in 2022 “at the end of two calamitous terms”, Houellebecq writes. “The outgoing president had practically given up speaking, and most media seemed to have forgotten his existence. When, on the steps of the Élysée, in front of a handful of journalists, he called himself ‘the last rampart of the republican order,’ there was brief but perceptible laughter.”
To prevent the election of the anti-European Le Pen, the discredited socialists (PS) and disintegrating, conservative UMP rally behind the candidacy of the fictional, pro-European Mohamed Ben Abbes, a graduate of the prestigious ENA, which trains French civil servants. Ben Abbes leads the equally fictional Muslim Fraternity and makes François Bayrou, the real-life centrist leader, his prime minister. France urges the EU to admit Mediterranean Muslim countries.
By portraying the “UMPS” in cahoots to hand France over to Muslims, Houellebecq validates one of Le Pen’s favourite conspiracy theories. The publication of his novel “marks the return of extreme right-wing theories to French literature”, writes Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libération. “It warms up a seat for Marine Le Pen in the [famous literary] café de Flore.”
In his 2001 novel Platform, Houellebecq described Muslims as “clots” in the “blood vessels” of Europe. In an interview promoting Platform, Houellebecq described Islam as “the most stupid religion in the world”. Four Muslim organisations filed a lawsuit against him, which Houellebecq won. After receiving threats, he took refuge for several years in the west of Ireland.
Submission is written with such ironic detachment that some critics claim it is pro-Islam. Under president Ben Abbes, women stay at home to look after children. Unemployment plummets and the economy improves. Gulf Arabs lavishly finance the privatised French education system.
The story is told by François, a single, alcoholic literature professor who survives on microwave meals and uses prostitutes. François is sacked by the newly renamed Islamic University of the Sorbonne. There are obvious parallels between him and JK Huysmans, the late 19th century writer who is his speciality. The apolitical François notes that he’s watching the collapse of “the last vestiges of a dying social democracy”. Huysmans wrote: “So die, old world!”
Huysmans converted to Catholicism. François finds significant advantages in converting to Islam. The Sorbonne hires him back, at an improved salary of €10,000 per month. Gallimard publishers commission him to edit the complete works of Huysmans. And he is offered not one but three brides – an old one to do the cooking, and two young women for his sexual pleasure; the youngest only 15.
Submission is the English translation of the Arabic word “Islam”. It’s meant to designate man’s submission to Allah, but in Houellebecq’s profoundly misogynistic novel, it’s really about the submission of women.