Bad Timing

Houellebecq’s Incendiary Novel Imagines France With a Muslim President

The new blockbuster by France’s most controversial author was published, by terrible coincidence, the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty

Until 11:30 Wednesday morning, when gunmen shouting Allahu Akbar burst into the offices of the satirical weekly “Charlie Hebdo” and began a killing spree that the French are now calling their 9/11, the literary and news event of the week in Paris was expected to be the publication of the latest book by novelist-provocateur Michel Houellebecq. Submission is set in a France seven years from now that is dominated by a Muslim president intent on imposing Islamic law.

Houellebecq on Thursday announced that he is suspending promotion of the novel. But that came too late to avert a terrible irony: Many of the same Paris kiosks that display the message “Je Suis Charlie,” defending freedom of speech in the face of barbarism, also display posters of Houellebecq on the cover of the “Nouvel Observateur” weekly with the quotation: “I survived all attacks.”

To give an idea what Houellebecq and his book are all about, we’ve translated and excerpted the review that Pierre Assouline published Monday on his influential literary website,“La République des Livres.” — TDB

So, Houellebecq. Can’t get around him, can’t finesse him, can’t pass over him. Whatever one thinks of Michel Houellebecq and his books, he is there, holding his ground and dominating the French literary scene for almost 20 years. Abroad, he is “the” French novelist par excellence; the most translated, the most commented upon, albeit often for the wrong reasons. He is preceded by his legend, each of his novels an event even before it is published, a phenomenon that has earned him the status of “social phenomenon.”

Submission, a novel of political fiction and agile prediction that appears in French bookstores Wednesday but already was available free for a week as an illegal download, takes place in the France of 2022. François, the narrator, is a 44-year-old academic, a lecturer on 19th century literature, a professor, and the author of a thesis at the Sorbonne, “Joris-Karl Huysmans, or, Out of the Tunnel,” about the fin de siècle writer, art critic and exalted convert to Catholicism.

François does not like young people, believes along with Nabokov that the sum of a writer’s books is enough to trace his intellectual biography, loses points on his driver’s license, and takes 11 days to recover from a meeting with a pretty girl who managed to fantasize about the right-wing politician Jean-François Copé. He often makes love, but without fatigue or pleasure, even when he practices anal sex. His girlfriend, increasingly uncomfortable in a society where anti-Semitic speech is becoming commonplace, leaves him and emigrates to Israel, which makes him very sad and lonely: “There is no Israel for me,” a gentile, he admits to her after a farewell kiss, and that’s probably one of the key lines in the novel.

His solitude is killing him. His life as a man is built around health insurance and tax services. He has not seen his parents for years. When he learns of his father’s death, he realizes they have never spoken; when news of his mother’s death is published, he discovers she is destined for a pauper’s grave. He hits bottom at Rocamadour, a sanctuary in the Dordogne known as a citadel of faith devoted to Mary. In a key scene, he goes into the parking lot of the Chapel of Our Lady with a sense of spiritual abandonment after praying in vain to the Black Madonna.

Mohammed Ben Abbes (from the “Mandela” class at the École National d’Administration) is President of the French Republic. The government is formed by an alliance of the center-right and the Muslim Brotherhood, who have joined forces during the election campaign to stop the extreme right. Ben Abbes does not consider France as a land of infidels, as the Salafists do, but as fertile ground to become part of Dar-al-Islam, the home of Islam. Magnanimously, it would seem, the big winner happily gives up the high-prestige cabinet portfolios in order to maintain control over the real agency of change, the ministry of education, because that’s where things happen—where demography is shaped—and not at the economy ministry. Education controls the transmission of values and molds the spirit before dominating the soul.

So, Islamized teaching sends girls back home for marriage and housework, and remains exclusively for boys. School cafeterias are halal, the curriculum is tailored to the teachings of the Qur’an, there are five prayers daily, and women are expected to wear trousers, not skirts. Indeed, every teacher is expected to be a Muslim by birth or conversion.

In that country at that moment, the Catholics have practically disappeared. Those who are left are reduced to the status of dhimmi, second-class citizens, treated as People of the Book, the monotheist Jews and Christians, were treated for centuries in Muslim realms where the Qur’an was the constitution. But the enemy of the new emirs is neither the Jew nor the Christian, it is the godless militant defending secularism. In other words, the free thinker defending freedom of thought.

The President of the Republic, skilled at impersonating a moderate, has vast plans for a historic project: to convert the world to Islam. He sees himself as the first Muslim president of all Europe.

Resistance is embodied in a movement called "European natives": the first inhabitants of the old continent, coming together to stand against Muslim colonization. They are, to say the least, preparing for civil war (the polling stations are stormed by armed gangs). They form the White Camp. Through their activism, they present a scathing rebuke to the narrator, who is convinced that the French are as resigned and apathetic as he is.

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Submission has everything that’s needed for an American-style page-turner, even if, gradually, you feel increasing unease about the world it draws page after page. Who in France would desire a France like that? The response of the narrator is clear: Muslims. To hell with the moderate, the enlightened, the nuanced!

And what does the author himself think of this? Fiction is a very convenient screen and, in this case, given the tense environment that has developed about questions of identity in our country, Michel Houellebecq remains elusive and impassive in the face of impending catastrophe, as if it did not concern him. He observes the bodies floating away on the river, pulling on his cigarette with a sneer. From this attitude he draws a singular comic and literary power. Yet this, in the end, is a book from which one emerges sad, gloomy, disenchanted, at least if we agree to take it seriously.

Houellebecq calls himself an accelerator of historic particles, condensing what is to come (here it is useful to read his interview in the Paris Review). This does not prevent him from playing recklessly with the fears of the French by positing a frightening extension of the domain of Islam. “A novel!” one may say. Indeed, The Satanic Verses, was a novel, too. Such is the power of fiction.

This is comedy based on a cold humor, detached, euphemistic, devoid of any generosity. Some pages are irresistibly comic. We see it and we hear it when he writes: "The Cro-Magnon hunted mammoth and reindeer; those of today had the choice between Auchan and Leclerc [supermarkets]."

There’s noting to salvage from his nihilism, his misanthropy, his misogyny that is more and more pronounced: "A woman is certainly human but represents a type of humanity that is slightly different; she brings to one’s life a certain perfume of exoticism."

This is even more striking in Submission than in his previous books. Houellebecq shows himself to be perfectly disgusted with humanity. But he has made undeniable progress since the time (September 2001), when he decreed "the dumbest religion is still Islam.” His discourse is now more detailed: submission, which is the meaning of islam in Arabic, gives him a kind of enjoyment. It is the summit of human happiness: the surrender of man to God, of woman to man, of several women to the same man. All this is slathered in Nietzscheism à la Michel to show how much Europe has degenerated, decomposing because it abandoned its core values, in its death throes like the Roman Empire in 476. And let’s be clear, this is not a matter of Islamism, but of Islam. At the end of the novel, Belgium falls after France, and then the other countries of Europe are destined to feel the gentle whip of the Sharia.

Submission is less a novel of ideas than a political book, and of the most subversive kind. One may call into question Houellebecq’s sincerity and denounce his calculating and opportunistic mind. As for his despair, accentuated by real melancholy and a physique that’s more and more run down (when you think he was born in 1958 ...), it’s hard to judge. You can count on houellebecquiens, who abound in the media, to find genius in his pen that would be unforgiveable in another’s: "a brutally inquisitive look," etc. In his view, a writer has only one duty: to be present in his books. He certainly is that, and on all the pages. And if one talks about responsibility, his or any other writer’s, he will claim the right of every artist to be irresponsible. But what is there more irresponsible than playing with the fire of an imagined civil war in the France of today?