Thursday, 12 November 2015

Book review: Submission, Michel Houellebecq (2015)

Francois is probably the blandest name in the French language and it's the name of the hero of this book, a burlesque that asks what the elites would do if a Muslim political party took power in the country. Francois is a sad fellow, an expert on the French novelist of the late-19th-century, Huysmans, and a teacher at the university Paris III.

Surprisingly, despite the fact that this novel is something of a cause celebre, it is rather unjudgemental with regard to Islam itself, and reserves its sharpest barbs for the ruling elites in France.

The political crisis that underpins most of the drama in the novel concerns the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in France. At first there is a struggle and some violence on the streets but this stage of the crisis is brief. What follows, as Saudi cash starts to flow into France with the electoral success of the Muslim party, is a quick about-face among the elites, eager to take advantage of the bounty available. The advantages that can accrue to someone who is a teacher, like Francois, are significant but there's a catch: all teachers must convert to Islam.

As Francois approaches closer to this impasse we participate in his sentimental rapprochement, a type of conversion of taste, which will be enough to allow him to take the final plunge, a part of the book that is rendered in the end only in the conditional tense as something that would soon take place. We are not privy to his actual emotions during the process itself. We do come into contact with the sense of wellbeing that the religion apparently bestows upon its adherents, that is in the beatific smiles of Robert Rediger, a politician and university administrator who bends his will in an effort to bring Francois into the fold. Those smiles have something of the divine and also something frighteningly cold about them.

No, we never see Francois with his face wreathed in a beatific smile of submission but that is not too much of a failing. It might even be an advantage for a book with such complex aims as this one. On one hand we are part of a millennial process of change brought on by the apparent success of Europe's liberal middle classes, now freed from strict gender roles, a success which has resulted in the rise of a political Islam with the aim of uniting Europe with the Middle East and North Africa in a single political unit.

I think noone has much to fear from this novel, but then it was not written from the point of view of a female protagonist. I think that the narrative arc might have taken quite a different trajectory if it had been. Now, that might be an interesting sequel to write.

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