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REVIEWING

Submission

By Michel Houellebecq

Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First American Edition | 2015 | 256 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

Michel Houellebecq

In the case of French maverick author, Michel Houellebecq, whose book, Submission, is the most controversial publication in the current season, and the brash amount of political satire has triggered the wrath of many segments of the European community.

This is not the garden-variety satire of Swift, Orwell, Huxley, or even Salman Rushdie’s scathing Satanic Verses, which earned him a fatwa for his disrespect of The Prophet.

Often, satire spills into the real lives of people with tragic consequences, like in Houellebecq’s case. In 2002, the writer was forced to appear in French court on charges of inciting religious and racial hatred for calling Islam “the stupidest religion” in a much-publicized interview. He was blasted for criticizing the Qur’an for its “badly written” text.

The beleaguered writer moved to Ireland, where he lived for several years.  

What did Houellebecq’s Submission play in recent events involving the bloody ISIS bombings at Brussels Airport and a nearby subway station last March, killing over 35 and injuring more than 200?

His affiliation with the satirical political magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and its publication of inflammatory cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in 2006. put his life in danger. Five years later, its offices were firebombed after an issue was supposedly guest-edited by the Prophet.

Last year, the European edition of Submission was featured on the cover of the Charlie Hebdo, and the fallout was lethal on January, 2015, when a group of masked gunmen attacked the magazine’s Paris office, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” slaughtering twelve people and injuring many others.

Critics called Houellebecq’s work “Islamophobic scaremongering.” The country, and all of Europe, was frightened of the savage series of terrorist attacks, compounded by the influx of immigrants pouring in from ravaged Middle East countries.

At the moment of the attack, Submission publisher William Heinemann bought the book from the French publisher Flammarion, which stationed more security around its facilities after the book’s release. Freedom of expression had been trumped by strict religious dogma, terrifying all infidels.

Currently, the world is in an uproar, waiting on edge to see where the Jihadists will strike next. Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, feeds into the paranoia, generating heated debate about Islam and terrorism, multiculturalism and nationalism, freedom of expression and extremism.

It tells the tale of Francois, a 41-year-old professor of literature and an expert of lusty J. K. Huysmans, a seducer of perky teen flesh. In some sense, Francois is Houellebecq, commenting on the state of middle-aged masculinity, the future of marriage and family and the rights of the individual in an increasingly regulated society.

Submission’s plot runs a parallel track between the emotionally stilted quest of Francois and an imagined France in the election year of 2022, with the surging racist National Front Party threatening the rule of the Socialists, which teams with the Muslim Brotherhood to stem the road to power by the fascists. Some of the characters in the novel are ripped from the headlines, while others like the photogenic Mohammed Ben Abbes and his party of Allah’s faithful are a product of Houellebecq’s fertile imagination.

Many of the politically correct pundits disagree with his vision of a rapidly transformed Europe in the face of religious fundamentalism and extremism, but concede it can happen.

Houellebecq’s Submission concerns itself with political and cultural surrender, not just with the threat of fear and terror, but with intimidation and moral cowardice. It’s the type of situation that Germany, in its post-war Weimar phase, found itself with the rise of Hitler and his aggressive thugs; or with the diplomatic compromises of Chamberlain in Munich, throwing in the towel to the barbarians.

“Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear,” writes Albert Camus, the author of The Stranger.

With France beset in urban turmoil, its citizens chose the lesser of two evils, selecting the Muslim Brotherhood and a mild form of Sharia law, not the harsh brand practiced by the Islamic State, or the Taliban.

All facets of French culture are transformed on June 5th, the date of the Second General Election, including the forsaking of Western dress by the women. Men now take the jobs formerly held by their vanquished female counterparts. Under the new Islamic regime, crime vanishes and non-Muslim teachers are urged to quit unless they convert to the worship of Allah.

After Francois’ flight to the French countryside, he watches the Muslims spread their influence into every nook of Gallic culture and marvels as the Sorbonne is bought by the Saudis and prohibited to all infidels. In this world imagined by Houellebecq, the leading character succumbs to his lust for an abundance of flesh and a profitable Sorbonne post. So even the prickly Francois surrenders, like all of France, to a force, which allows him to indulge his manly pleasures while joining the ranks of a collective of willing converts.

***

Before continuing with the review, let’s explore this man, Houellebecq, who knows how to seduce the media and the publishing world by writing outrageous things. He makes trouble and heads for the hills. No signings, no interviews, no parties at public venues. Security is tight. Often, he’ll stay in his hotel room to avoid confrontations, for each book sparks resentment and insults. Submission, his sixth book,is no exception.

Born in February, 1958, on Reunion Island, Houellebecq, the son of a French doctor and a ski instructor, is proud to stir up bit of ruckus with his poetry, books, and films. Until 1961, he lived in Algeria with his grandmother, but was relocated to France with another relative, a communist.

There were bouts of depression and stints in mental facilities. He published his first novel, Whatever, in 1994 and a second, Atomised (The Elementary Particles), in 1998. That year, he received the Grand Prix National Des Lettres Jeunes Talents for his body of work. It was the third novel, Platform, which caused him to face legal prosecution for inciting racial hatred. That book, published in 2001, featured several lurid sex scenes with an endorsement of prostitution and sex tourism, both angered critics along with a harsh slamming of Islam in its pages.

In 2005, Houellebecq wrote another novel, The Possibility of an Island, and later adapted it for film. Unapologetic, he published another novel, The Map and the Territory, released in September 2010, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt, but there was a charge of plagiarizing from another book. The writer dismissed the accusations.

Houellebecq was used to negative critics and bad press. “First of all, they hate me more than I hate them,” he said. “What I do reproach them for isn’t bad reviews. It is that they talk about things having nothing to do with my books—my mother or my tax exile—and that they caricature me so that I’ve become a symbol of so many unpleasant things—cynicism, nihilism, misogyny. People have stopped reading my books because they already got their idea about me.”

Asked about his religious beliefs, which play a significant part in Submission, such as Francois’s flirtation with the faithful, then brief embracing Catholicism, Houellebecq says he thought he didn’t believe in a Supreme Being, but added in a recent Paris Review interview: “I think there is a real need for God and that the return of religion is not a slogan but a reality, and that it is very much on the rise.”

In that same interview, he admits that he exaggerates situation and fantasizes, striking fear into readers. “Yes, the book has a scary side. I use scare tactics.”

Repeatedly, Houellebecq has denied Submission is not to offend or provoke anyone. “I can’t say that the book is a provocation—if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves. I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.”

***

From the land of Chirac, Sarkozy and Mitterrand, Houellebecq has written a richly imagined, thorny, occasionally messy political satire about the future of Europe, the immigrant question, and the Muslim option with a heavy dose of religious extremism. He doesn’t care if he presents rude, impolite questions; all that matters is that the questions are asked.

Literary, dark, irresponsible, and full of surprises, it demands to be read as a possible prophesy for our times.



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