Submission is a novel written to be misunderstood. Fans and enemies will love it, hate it and get it wrong. And with good reason. Houellebecq’s last novel about Islam – for which he was widely condemned, and even taken to court – was published just weeks before 9/11. Submission came out on January 7 this year – the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In a further cruel irony, the magazine had caricatured Houellebecq on its cover that day. The cartoon Houellebecq, wearing a wizard’s hat and a deranged expression, declares: ‘In 2015, I’ll lose my teeth’ and ‘In 2022, I’ll observe Ramadan!’ Houellebecq has some timing.
The satire riffs on Houellebecq’s propensity to predict the future. He’s a Cassandra who is cursed never to shut up. His breakthrough book, Atomised, has the human race becoming extinct and replaced by peaceful clones: this development is depicted as a utopia but in a later novel, The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq revisits the clone future and reveals it to be desolate and sad. The clones are smarter and more peaceful than their predecessors, but they miss humanity and its messy instincts they left behind.
Houellebecq is a fine observer of the human condition and social problems. The stupidity of market culture, the difficulty and sorrow that so often characterises human relations – no one draws it with more style. But Houllebecq then insists on coming up with solutions, and the solutions are always ridiculous. In Atomised, he wants to let humanity die out altogether: in Platform, he proposes an international system of indentured Far Eastern sexual exploitation, all for the benefit of a few middle aged frustrated European males. Houellebecq favours the ‘mad professor’ style of literature.
Platform is what the kids today would call a ‘problematic’ novel. At its beginning the narrator’s father is murdered by a young Muslim criminal: it ends with the narrator’s girlfriend murdered by Islamist terrorists. The bulk of the book follows narrator Michel as he gets together with the girlfriend Valérie and they set up their sex tourism business. For such a notorious grump Houellebecq is very good at writing about happy relationships. But outside the pleasant sensual world of the protagonists’ love affair, there’s a constant undertow of threat. A colleague of Valérie’s is raped on a train by West Indians, banlieues erupt in flames, the fear and hostility is palpable. ‘In the papers now it was teachers being stabbed, nursery school teachers being raped, fire engines attacked with Molotov cocktails, handicapped people thrown through the windows of trains because they had ‘looked the wrong way’ at some gang leader.’ Platform is not against Islam so much as it is against a certain kind of young Asian man – the ‘criminalMuslimman’ of Western stereotype.
Fear haunts Submission as well. ‘You could make out groups of masked men roaming around with assault rifles and automatic weapons,’ its narrator reports. ‘Windows had been broken, here and there cars were on fire’. Houellebecq would have made a great horror writer, and here he captures the fraught atmosphere of a city tipping into violence. The instinctive fear is matched with a more intellectual variant. Adam Shatz, in his masterful review of Submission, writes that ‘fear of Islam, and of Muslims, has never been the exclusive property of the far right in France: it has always been rooted in the widespread demographic nightmare of being overrun by Muslims, of the coming ‘Eurabia’… Houellebecq’s novel is sprinkled with winking allusions to anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists like Bat Ye’or, the doyenne of Eurabia literature.’ It’s a piece of conspiracy theory that many artists flirted with – ‘has feminism cost us Europe?’ Martin Amis wondered in 2008. The idea is that the liberation from the duty to reproduce will destroy liberal societies.
They must know that this dog is shot. What everyone misses about European freedom of movement is that it is only for Europeans. Katy Long in her book The Huddled Masses, claims that the EU spends 2 billion euro per year on its border agency, Frontex. ‘For the Europe that guarantees its citizens’ mobility is the same Europe set on keeping others out.’ She goes on to say this:
At the height of the Arab Spring in February 2011, for instance, Frontex put into effect Operation Hermes, which aimed to detect – and to deter – African migrants from crossing the Mediterranean… The results of Frontex’s industry must be measured not just in money spent, or illegal crossings detected – some 25,000 in 2013, an average of one every four hours – but in migrants dead. At least 20,000 would-be migrants are thought to have died on the Mediterranean sea in the past 20 years trying to reach Europe, as smugglers pack leaky boats and coastguards are accused of looking the other way. Numerous human rights advocates have warned that Frontex’s operations have blocked refugees from being able to apply for vital protection, as is their right under international – and EU – law.
So much for the social democratic paradise. Conspiracy about Muslim immigration and birth rates should have died the day Alan Kurdi’s corpse washed up on a Turkish beach.
But Submission isn’t a book so much about Islam as the religious impulse. The takeover of France by religious extremists is played out with care and skill: there’s no big chunks of unlikely exposition. (It doesn’t even feel that implausible. A lecturer on political campaigns told me in 2014 that ‘if you wanted to take over the Labour Party and turn it into your own political vehicle you could probably do it. You’d need about five grand.’ Such things can be done.) Houellebecq has tremendous fun with the interplay of the reality and the dystopia, sending up anti-Israel boycotts, the nativist right and leftists who support radical Islam – shocking in the early years of the century, but a commonplace today.
But Houellebecq is nothing if not discursive. Throughout his novels, the storyline – what there is of it – is routinely interrupted by long passages of authorial comment on anything and everything: a critique of Larry Clark’s films, a tribute to Agatha Christie, a minor study of the parasites that live in summer meadows. His mind wanders, and he makes no apology for it. And in this book he has an excuse: the narrator is a university lecturer specialising in the works of J K Huysmans. Submission starts off with a wide scope but ends up following the scholar’s relationship with his master. At the end of the story Francois ends up finishing his relationship with Huysmans – the longest and most durable of his life – and converts to Islam.
For all Platform‘s erotica and violence, it had a serious point. Michel and Valérie are sensualists who assume that sex drives most people’s lives, and their business model is predicated on that basis. They learn the hard way that human beings still have a different kind of passion. Despite all the talk about supremacy of the market, ideology and belief systems still exist, still motivate. You fuck with this at your peril, Houellebecq warns. In Submission he takes the question deeper: why do people have such passions? Why do people believe in god? Where does religion come from?
Stanz also makes the point that, for a novel about Islam, there aren’t many Muslims in Submission. Houellebecq focuses on the impact of Islam upon the unbeliever. The reactionary faith turns out to dovetail more or less exactly with first world problems. Many conservatives have a secret, or not so secret, admiration for societies where women are kept to the home and shoplifters have their hands cut off. And the myth that there is no misogyny on the Western left is as dead as Eurabia. Houellebecq’s characters tend to build their routines around drinking, smoking, reading and sex. Write something down, drink a glass of wine, do some reading, jerk off, meet a woman, do some more writing, more wine, jerk off again – isn’t that the middle aged male writing ideal, Houellebecq asks, what we’ve been striving for since Hemingway was in full pomp? His attitudes to women are quite the most tiresome aspect of the book. Women! What can one do with them? They get old, they lose interest, they become melodramatic. And yet he’s still fascinated with them. François relates that he ‘once met a girl – a pretty, attractive girl – who told me she fantasised about Jean-François Copé. It took me several days to get over it. Really, with girls today, all bets are off.’
Houellebecq’s conclusion is a variation on John Updike’s idea that god exists because of the human desire that god should exist. When Houellebecq talks about submission he means it in an almost mystical sense, to accept what is and what comes. ‘The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission.’ François submits to the new Islamist order. Most people would in that situation, because most people tend to do what they are told. The deal is sweetened by a fat salary, a pension, and several new wives (again, the constant riffing on Muslim polygamy is another thing that grates after awhile). But the real dealbreaker is the submission itself. A reason not to think. An escape from the terror and brilliance of living. As Atwood said: what an available temptation.
Perhaps this isn’t a novel about the religious impulse so much about the human desire for stability. The recent vogue for faith of any kind, the learned professors who rave about medieval belief systems, the activists who indulge maniacs and killers and call it dialogue – it all comes from this, the lazy ennui and weary exasperation of people who have taken all they can from a free country and now hurl their toys out of the pram. The director of the Islamic Sorbonne, and François’s new boss, experiences his crucial disillusionment when he discovers that the bar of the Hotel Metropole has closed down:
I was stupefied … To think that until then one could order sandwiches and beers, Viennese chocolates and cakes with cream in this absolute masterpiece of decorative art, that one could live everyday life surrounded by beauty, and that all this could disappear in one stroke in a European capital! … Yes, that was the moment when I understood: Europe had already committed suicide … The next day, I went to see an imam in Zaventem. And the day after that – Easter Monday – in the presence of a dozen witnesses, I pronounced the ritual formula of conversion to Islam.
There we have it. The anti consumerist ideology cultivated by authoritarians of all cultures is revealed to be… a product of consumerism. I don’t think that’s all there is to the religious impulse. Life is scary and confusing. You look for something that makes you feel safe. But the fear is part of this business of living and the fear too is yours. Henry Miller, in The Wisdom of the Heart, calls this the ‘Paradise of Neurosis’:
In his present fearsome state man seems to have one attitude, escape, wherein he is fixed as in a nightmare. Not only does he refuse to accept his fears, but worse, he fears his fears… To imagine that we are going to be saved by outside intervention, whether in the shape of an analyst, a dictator, a savior, or even God, is sheer folly.
‘There are not enough lifeboats to go around,’ Miller writes, and: ‘what is needed more than lifeboats is lighthouses. A fuller, clearer vision – not more safety appliances!’
Houellebecq almost despite himself is providing that full clear vision: he’s a lighthouse keeper, even if his beam is a little shaky and he does tend to fall asleep at the controls. You won’t agree with him. But how could you not love a writer so persistently leftfield. The line from Submission that made me laugh out loud comes when Houellebecq critiques the Christian parable of the adulterer and the crowd: ‘Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.’ His response to this is: ‘All you’d have to do is get hold of a seven-year-old child – he’d have cast the first stone, the little fucker.’