Sunday 17 December 2017

Houellebecq reveals vision of a more Islamic France

Submission, Michel Houellebecq, Heinemann, €17.99

Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq

Desmond Traynor

Published in French on January 7 this year, the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, and now appearing in English translation, you couldn't say controversialist Michel Houellebecq's latest novel, his seventh, is not prescient. He has form when it comes to Muslim immigration in France, and jihadism, of course. He was cleared in court in 2002 of incitement to racial hatred, after calling Islam 'the stupidest religion', and his 1999 novel Platform culminates in the conflagration of a fundamentalist terrorist atrocity on a beach resort in Thailand.

Submission's central character is a recognisable Houellebecq type. Francois, 44, a lecturer at the Sorbonne, is reclusive, friendless, existing on a diet of frozen dinners in his two-room apartment, and trying to avoid mithering by postgraduate students he doesn't consider up to snuff. He was the author, in his 20s, of a brilliant dissertation on decadent 19th-Century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of the infamous Au Rebours.

Set slightly in the future, Submission partakes of a trait of most of the best science fiction, that of a 'What if…?' projection on the present. It is also in the tradition of the dystopian narrative, a la Orwell's 1984, although the timeline here is rather more truncated and immediate, for this is a dystopia we mostly already inhabit.

It is 2022, and the apolitical Francois is settling in to watch the Presidential election results. After the preliminary voting, two candidates emerge: Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, and the head of France's new Islamic party, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The Socialists coalesce with the Muslim Brotherhood to defeat Le Pen, and Ben Abbes becomes president. Because the Brotherhood cares more about education than the economy, as the chief instiller of appropriate moral values in the next generation, all they ask is that state secondary schools and universities adopt an Islamic curriculum. Francois is duly informed that he cannot return to his university work unless he converts to Islam, and is retired on a generous pension.

These events precipitate a crisis of (non) faith, which sees Francois taking off for the Benedictine abbey in southern France where Huysmans spent his last years after abandoning his dissolute life in Paris and converting to mystical Catholicism in middle age, and thence to the medieval Christian pilgrimage site Rocamadour.

This is no coup d'etat, so little seems to change at first, but over the following months Francois starts to notice small things, beginning with how women dress. He sees fewer skirts and dresses, more baggy pants and shirts that hide the body's contours. Non-Muslim women have adopted the style to escape the sexual marketplace that Houellebecq has delineated elsewhere. Youth crime declines, as does unemployment when women, grateful for the social engineering of new family subsidies, begin to leave the workforce to care for their children.

Francois thinks he sees a new social model developing before his eyes, which has the polygamous family at its centre. Men have different wives for sex, child-bearing, and affection; the wives pass through all these stages as they age, but are never abandoned. Francois is impressed, but while his admiration may initially stem from a colonial fantasy of the erotic harem, it flourishes as acknowledgement of a secure social order.

The big question here is, how much does Houellebecq himself endorse this view? Curiously, he may not simply be pulling our leg here. When Francois accedes to the gentle proselytising of the suave university president, and returns to his now exorbitantly paid teaching post, it seems not solely out of self-interest, if at all.

Similarly, when he also edits a complete works of Huysmans, where he concludes that his hero was not really a decadent at all, he genuinely seems to believe this.

So, while some in France have complained that the novel fans right-wing fears of the Muslim population, that is to miss Houellebecq's subversive point: Islamists and anti-immigration demagogues really ought to be on the same side, because they share a suspicion of pluralist liberalism and a desire to return to 'traditional' or pre-feminist values, where a woman submits to her husband, just as 'Islam' means that a Muslim submits to God.

Which is all fine and well, unless you're the kind of man who'd like to be with a woman who has a brain, or are the kind of woman for whom domesticity does not provide total fulfilment.

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