Michel Houellebecq / Windmill Books
No work of fiction in recent memory has attracted attention like Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. It was a magnet for controversy even before its release and was featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the day that paper’s staff were murdered. Likewise, interest in the publication of the English translation was assured – even before the recent Paris attacks once again made the book tragically timely. Submission is set in the near future, in a France where an Islamic political party are in the process of taking power. Houellebecq invites charges of Islamophobia – he publically identifies with the term, and has been taken to court for inciting racial hatred before. Yet, to those eager to dismiss Submission as a work of bigotry, it is worth noting that the bulk of the text actually has little to do with Islam or Muslims. It is, rather, the account of an isolated, atheist academic, lost in the modern western world. There are obvious parallels with Camus’ The Outsider; the narrator’s mother dies and he does not grieve; he is a witness to horrific violence and he feels nothing; women are to him merely a pleasant distraction. Unlike The Outsider, however, the protagonist of Submission is not alien to his society. He is entirely of his surroundings; France is a nation of outsiders now. He attempts to escape from the world around him and flirts with becoming a monk, before deciding it’s not for him: “I got used to the litany of prayers, but I never actually managed to love them.” He goes back into the secular world, and decides that’s no good either: “It gave me no satisfaction to be back among people like myself.” It is taken for granted that the West is decadent and barren, that the family as an institution has disappeared, that sexual pleasure alone will not sustain happiness (though that doesn’t stop Houellebecq describing it in pornographic detail). In Submission, Islam thrives not because of the aggressive militarism which so monopolises social media, 24 hour news and the tabloids, but because the nihilistic West – absorbed by social media, 24 hour news and the tabloids – is, for your average, unimaginative person, no longer a civilization worth living in. The alternative, as embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood party which takes power, is welcomed by virtually everybody in the novel. Their policies and supporters are more reminiscent of New Labour than ISIS, and the beloved president Ben Abbes, puts one more in mind of Waleed Aly than Ayatollah Khomeini. When the protagonist converts in the final pages it is for temporal, rather than spiritual reasons. Does he accept that the one true God is Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet? Not really. He wants the respect, money, and wives which come with adopting the religion of the state. It is into, rather than from, the flesh that he is born again. The book closes with the narrator’s realisation that he is offered “the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one. I would have nothing to mourn”. Sure, being the master of your fate and the captain of your soul has its allure, but so does the guarantee of being made a hot dinner by a hot wife. Hollebeque portrays a nation incapable of rising to the challenge of modernity and, incapable of being the Übermensch, or attaining a new, personal truth, all that remains is the choice between the void and the adoption of an ancient religion. In Submission, Islam trumps Christianity simply because it has not yet apologised itself out of existence. The best argument against this gloomy picture of resignation and surrender might well be Hollebeque himself. If France is still willing to champion a man so hard-headedly independent, they might not be on the road to Submission.