Michel Houellebecq is one of France’s best regarded novelists, nonfiction writers, and essayists. His latest novel, Soumission (Submission), appearing some months after the publication of Éric Zemmour’s Le suicide français, in the same month as the murders at Charlie Hebdo, and following a series of killings of Jews by Muslims in several French cities and in Belgium, has inherited the whirlwind, though Houellebecq is not a “political” novelist. He is a very French one, somewhat in the manner of Camus (whose L’Étranger, or The Stranger, Soumission recalled for me), though Houellebecq’s interests do not lie, so far as I can tell, in existentialism or abnormal psychology, and many of Soumission’s affinities with L’Étranger have to do with his prose style and narrative technique, poetic like Camus’s though not so pared down. Houellebecq is, rather, a social novelist with a critical eye comparable to Balzac’s in its ability to perceive the corruption and decay of French society in his own time.
Soumission naturally invites comparison with Jean Raspail’s Camp of the Saints, published in the early 70’s, but the comparison holds only so far as the subject of Muslim aggression against the West goes; the literary treatment is the opposite one. Raspail chose the big picture, the wide canvas, the historical view, the cast of thousands. The Camp of the Saints is a fable, in the way that H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds is a fable. Houellebecq’s choice was the alternative one: the individual focus and the personal point of view, the quotidian setting, few characters, a simple story line, and a scenario so plausible in its conformity with the contents of the 24/7 news cycle that it annihilates the barriers between the real and the imagined—in short, verismo. Houellebecq’s considerable political sophistication and discernment, working with his imagination, are what have allowed him to do this. Raspail’s aim was to describe an invasion en masse of France as an historical event; Houellebecq’s is to present the gradual sabotage and submission of French civilization by the alien enemy already within the walls as the experience of a deracinated and demoralized French academician who, unlike Camus’s protagonist, does not feel “alienated” in the formal existentialist sense from France, while admitting that he simply knows his country “very little.”
Soumission, contrary to popular assumption in France and abroad, is not at all an “anti-Muslim” book. It is a reactionary one, but the author’s concern is for classic French civilization and what has become of it at the hands of the French themselves, not of the aliens among them. As Prof. Robert Rediger, a high official at the Sorbonne and a convert to Mohammedanism “married” to several wives, tells François (the narrator, protagonist, and a literary scholar specializing in 19th-century French literature at the same institution), “This Europe which was the summit of human civilization has committed suicide, over a period of several decades.” But suicide for Houellebecq means something different, and more radical, than it does for Zemmour, who blames the ruination of Europe on the political, commercial, and cultural elite who have deliberately murdered their civilization by sacrificing its welfare and identity to their own selfish interests under the pretense of universal benevolence. In Soumission, Houellebecq describes actual suicide, the self-destruction of a civilization, not by a decadent and irresponsible aristocracy but by the people themselves. Thus, France’s submission to Islam is really France’s submission to her modern self.
France as Houellebecq describes her in the year 2025 is France in 2015: decadent, deracinated, amoral, demoralized, corrupt, irresponsible, jaded, bored, ignorant, amnesiac, and dysfunctional, wholly succumbed to acedia. Living in the world capital of haute cuisine, François subsists largely on Moroccan fast food and alcohol. He is in his mid-40’s, never married, has few friends, and takes for granted the eventual divorce of a careerist couple of his acquaintance. His social life consists almost entirely of sexual encounters of the most depraved sort, described by the author in clinical detail. His parents divorced years ago, his mother has recently died, and his father, a wealthy industrialist, has another and much younger wife. François, an “expert” on Huysmans, has small intellectual curiosity and has produced very little scholarship. Huysmans’s fascination with Catholicism appeals to something in him, but he cannot summon faith enough to become a believer himself, and a retreat to the monastery Huysmans once visited ends in his premature departure when he is denied the indulgence of tobacco. Contemporary politics and history do not interest him. He is not an existentialist but a nonexistentialist, and his contemplated conversion to Islam at the story’s end is motivated chiefly by the prospect of having two or three very young and very submissive wives. “I should have nothing to regret,” are his last words—and the novel’s.
François’s moral and intellectual submission to the modern West’s cynical indifference and opportunism reflects the attitude of the French and European elite. The story turns on the election of a suave and persuasive candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood as president of France, a victory made possible by a fragmented party system and the moral bankruptcy of the parties themselves, of their leaders, and of the interests supporting them. Thus, a political deal is struck that allows Mohammed Ben Abbes (whose final ambition is to create a Muslim empire centered in Europe on the model of the old Roman one) to win the presidency of the French Republic. The United Popular Movement (the “conservative” party) cares only for free trade, global capitalism, and entrepreneurship, and the Communist Party for its parochial interests. The National Front is too fearful of the epithet of fascism to assert itself effectively; and Catholics have disappeared almost completely from France. Ben Abbes, in any event, is unafraid of the Church: For him, the enemy is secularism and laicism, not Catholicism. He is unconcerned with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Treasury, and Defense, and is more than willing to cede them amicably in exchange for the Ministry of Education and the social and cultural ministries that none of the other parties gives a damn about, but which Ben Abbes recognizes as the necessary means to religious and social revolution—the de facto installation of sharia—in France. Within weeks after Ben Abbes’s arrival at the Élysée Palace, the Sorbonne has submitted to Islam, the female students are veiled, and the faculty and staff fired—later hired back at three times their previous salaries to avert international criticism of France’s new Muslim regime.
Still, the novel ends, for me at least, on an ambiguous note. Unless I make too much of the author’s use of the conditional tense in the last few pages where François anticipates his planned conversion ceremonies, Houellebecq is possibly suggesting an unresolved future for his protagonist, and perhaps his country. “The conversion ceremony would be very simple. . . . The reception at the Sorbonne would be longer. . . . I should certainly, before pronouncing my responses. . . . I should have nothing to regret.” Does he actually go through with it? Does France really submit to the Brotherhood? Only Michel Houellebecq knows the answers, and even he cannot say for certain yet.
[Soumission, by Michel Houellebecq (Paris: Flammarion) 300 pp., €21]
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