Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Books

Review: Houellebecq's 'Submission' a quietly disturbing view of the future

Not with a bang, but with a ballot.

That is how France comes under Islamic rule in the near future in French novelist Michel Houellebecq's challenging and sobering novel. Challenging because it presents a welter of ideas, including a short course in French literature and philosophy. Sobering not so much because of the takeover itself but because of the Western decay — suicide, really — that allows it to happen.

Submission serves as a warning to the comfortable and self-satisfied West that individual liberties and secular governments can have expiration dates. It's 2017, and the politically savvy Mohammed Ben Abbes has formed the Muslim Brotherhood with a focus on charity, youth groups and "family values." It takes off, and by 2022 a tipping point arrives.

As Houellebecq's narrator says: "It may well be impossible for people who have lived and prospered under a given social system to imagine the point of view of those who feel it offers them nothing, and who can contemplate its destruction without any particular dismay."

The narrator is Francois, a middle-aged Paris literature professor with no lasting attachments, little interest in politics and a fascination with the 19th century writer J.K. Huysmans, the subject of his dissertation. Mired in a series of unsatisfactory relationships with students and prostitutes, Francois may be standing in for an entire civilization when he asks, "Should I just die? The decision struck me as premature." He views the rise of the Brotherhood with bemused detachment until it becomes clear that an Islamic government will directly affect his teaching position.

Where other authors might have loaded this tale with violence and political caricature, Houellebecq sticks to ideas and intimate relationships. Gunshots pop, but only in the background.

In fact, the Islamic party's rise seems so effortless that it becomes at times hard to swallow, even as fiction. Would France really submit to women being excluded from secondary education? Or requiring professors to convert to Islam? In the novel, women leave the workforce in droves in favor of a generous family subsidy, driving down the unemployment rate.

There is a kind of demographic determinism at work that can seem too trite, as when Francois defends the patriarchal societies of old: "There were families with children, and most of them had children. In other words, it worked, whereas now there aren't enough children, so we're finished."

Houellebecq's relationship with Islam is fraught. In his 2000 novel, Lanzarote, a narrator who is looking for a place to vacation says, "Arab countries might be worth the effort … if we could just liberate them from their absurd religion." In Submission, Francois takes a more accommodating approach. Houellebecq himself is quoted as saying the novel is not Islamophobic but a social commentary.

As usual, the author's winning prose is studded with bitter wit and imagery, as when a former lover who has aged poorly is likened to "a bird in an oil slick" who "had retained, if I can put it this way, a superior ability to flap her wings." When Francois leaves Paris to escape potential unrest, he goes to the southwest. "I knew next to nothing about the southwest, really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war." When he gets back to Paris, all the women are in pants.

"If Islam is not political, it is nothing," according to Ayatollah Khomeini, who is quoted at the beginning of the novel's final section. Where Houellebecq runs with that idea will leave many readers fascinated and alarmed.

Contact Mike Fasso at [email protected]

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