Onto the controversial work that has made my favourite list for the year. Whilst there was significant debate around when Kamel Daoud’s “The Meursault Investigation” was released (translated by John Cullen), the novel giving life to the unnamed “Arab” in Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”, including a fatwa being declared on the author, it only takes a new release from Michel Houellebecq to bring out the knives.
Accused of just about every crime a white middle aged male can be accused of, racism, sexism, xenophobia, Houellebecq is no stranger to controversy so it was no surprise to see him tackle the elephant in the room, the rise of Islam in France. Houellebecq aligns this with Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1895 novel “En Route”, a novel exploring a rise of the Catholic Church, and one where our protagonist becomes “morally mended and spiritually healed”.
At the turn of the twentieth century Huysmans earned the hostility of the Catholic Church as a result of this book and it was also condemned for obscenity. As an aside, it was also a work which was requested by Oscar Wilde during his incarceration, one would think earning further fame.
Why am I writing about Joris-Karl Huysmans as an introduction to Michel Houellebecq’s newest novel “Submission”? Besides the fact that the book contains an epigraph from En route, there are numerous parallels to our 2015 publication. Our narrator is a professor whose dissertation “Joris-Karl Huysmans: Out of the Tunnel” and is a world renowned expert in Huysmans work. Houellebecq’s novel contains numerous references to Huysmans novel and the theme of a character “plunged into decadence by the pressures of modern life” and discovering a new road via religion is central to our controversial book.
François, is our middle aged academic first person narrator, and he is alone, failed relationships with students, living alone, not bonding with any of the other university staff, our loner is estranged from his parents and his life is leading nowhere. Through exploring Huysmans in detail our narrator decides that a spiritual path may also lead him out of the wilderness. However instead of a backdrop of surging Catholicism we are in 2022 and the Muslim Fraternity is all the rage:
The facts were plain: Europe had reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it could no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done. This wave of new immigrants, with their traditional culture – of natural hierarchies, the submission of women and respect for elders – offered a historic opportunity for the moral and familial rearmament of Europe. These immigrants held out the home of a new golden age for the old continent. Some were Christian; but there was no denying that the vast majority were Muslim.
As a background to our narrator’s journey of self-discovery, the French Presidential election for 2022 is fast approaching and the rise of Muhammed Ben Abbes of the Muslim Fraternity is polarising the nation. Ben Abbes is a political genius, forming political alliances with mainstream parties who have lost their lustre and as a result he sweeps into power.
Our novel then explores the fears of the everyday population as Islamic law comes into force, the education system is changed to only provide Islamic teachings, the women are all veiled, skirts are replaced by pants, polygamy and teenage marriage is encouraged, and François suddenly needs to adapt.
Never one to shirk controversy Houellebecq was taken to court in 2002 for inciting racial hatred and has been criticised as obscene and misogynistic. This latest novel, again courts controversy, simply by addressing the elephant in the room, the proliferation of Muslims in France. Again there are “vulgar” scenes, with detailed descriptions of our protagonist’s outings with escorts, again there is the questioning of religion, however this isn’t simply sensationalist trash in order to sell books, it is part homage to Huysmans, part mid-life crisis novel, part political debate.
François dates a Jewish girl, who in the lead up to the elections decides to retreat to Israel, the intelligencia are also vilified:
When I went in to teach my class, I finally felt that something might happen, that the political system I’d grown up with, which had been showing cracks for so long, might suddenly explode. I don’t know exactly where the feeling came from. Maybe it was the attitude of my postgrad students: even the most apathetic and apolitical looked tense, anxious. They were obviously searching their smartphones and tablets for any news they could find. Or at any rate, they were more checked out than ever. It may have also been the way the girls in burkas carried themselves. They moved slowly and with new confidence, walking down the very middle of the hallway, three by three, as if they were already in charge.
I was equally struck by my colleagues’ lack of concern. They seemed completely unworried, as if none of this had anything to do with them. It only confirmed what I’d always thought – that, for all their education, university professors can’t even imagine political developments having any effect on their careers: they consider themselves untouchable.
Previously I have reviewed Houellebecq’s “The Map And The Territory” winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2010, where the author himself is vilified, where Houellebecq is murdered. Whilst that work was clever, enjoyable and a reflection again on mid-life crisis and the image of ourselves, his latest book delves further into the “threat” of an “imposed” culture. Personally only having a scant knowledge of Huysmans’ works, Houellebecq’s “Submission” has forced me into purchasing “En Route” so the parallel’s between the two books can be explored further. Another work to add to the “to be read” pile, however as a stand alone book, “Submission” explores a range of fears and themes that are currently being avoided by the mainstream and to highlight the rise of Islam, aligning it to the rise of Europe and the domination of Christianity is a fine approach indeed. An enjoyable novel, a very readable book, one that leaves many questions unanswered, a melting pot of cultures.
Yes, Houellebecq may use caricatures, yes he offends, yes he causes debate wherever he appears, and these are some of the reasons this work resonates with me. An exploration of fears the mainstream are not talking about is admirable in itself and a work I am sure will continue to be debated into 2016 and one that, like some others I have highlighted on my list, will be in contention when the gongs are being rung for the translated awards.