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Book Review of 'Soumission' by Michel Houellebecq - A satire about an Islamic government in France

Developments in the current French elections, with Left and Right exchanging preferences in order to defeat the National Front have become a case of life imitating art, specifically Houellebecq’s art in his latest novel, Soumission, which has just been translated into English.

Book Review of Soumission by Michel Houellebecq
Published by Flammarion, January 2015, English version October 20, 2015, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Michel Houllebecq's most recent novel, Soumission (Submission in English), a satire about France under a Muslim president, came out on the eve of the Charlie Hebdo massacres.

Publicity for the book ceased almost immediately for fear of setting off more violence. I decided not to go forward with a review for the same reason.

Months later, developments in the current French elections, with Left and Right exchanging preferences in order to defeat the National Front have become such a case of life imitating art, specifically Houellebecq’s art, however, that even a late review has relevance.

In Houellebecq's tale, Submission, which takes place in 2022, the traditional center left and center right parties are becoming irrelevant whilst the National Front is gaining relevance and its leader, Marine Le Pen is likely to win the presidency. What makes this particularly probable is the expected exchange of preferences between the Muslim Brotherhood Party and the National Front. Although the National Front is anti-high immigration, they share with the Muslim Brotherhood Party a nationalistic dislike of the European Union and big business.

Horrified at the prospect of being made completely irrelevant, the center right and center left make a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood Party and Marine Le Pen (National Front) is left out in the cold.

The French wake up the next day to an Islamic President. Women stop wearing skirts and instead wear trousers and long tops and cover their faces. The unemployment rate drops precipitously because women stay home. Very generous family benefits make it much easier for them to do this.

The protagonist of the novel, François, a literature professor, is even more misogynist than previous Houellebecq protagonists. He has the same antecedents though: estranged from unloving parents, unable to keep a girl, devoured by self-loathing. He is a serial recipient of ‘dear john’ letters, and only comfortable with prostitutes. Although he has no religion himself, he specialises in the conversion to Catholicism of an obscure 19th century writer, Huysmans. Huysmans was troubled by his sexuality and wrote that Catholicism helped him deal with it.

François is out of Paris as the new government takes over, traveling in a kind of existential fugue laced with mid-life crisis.

When he returns, he finds that his branch of the Sorbonne has been privatised and sold to a Saudi Prince. He suddenly realises at an academic meeting that there are no longer any female academics. The politically astute but academically bland new dean takes an interest in François, possibly because of Huysmans. François is intrigued to see that the dean has taken a very young wife in addition to his first. The dean urges Francois to do the same.

The advent of a French Islamic state has normalised arranged marriages and the novel closes as the professor contemplates polygamous marriage as a possible solution to his personal loss of direction.

Michel Houellebecq had previously been taken to court for racial vilification but had won because the French constitution permits criticism of religion as an essential political freedom and Houellebecq had criticised Islam, not Muslims.

In La Carte et le Territoire, published after that case, one of the characters, a novelist with a strong ressemblence to Houellebecq himself, is brutally murdered. We do not know why or who murdered him, only that he expected something like that to happen.

At the time of the Charlie Hebdo massacres, when asked how he felt about Islam these days, Houelbecq said he had completely changed his mind, having since read the Koran. He said that he now thought that Islam was a religion of peace and that he would not be particularly fussed if France were to become Islamic.

In Australia we have seen the similar collusion between political ‘enemies’ against nationalist parties as is transpiring now in France. Neither Left nor Right alone can defeat the National Front. The Left's performance is pitiful, but, if they pull out of the second rounds, it is hoped that the Right will get enough of their votes to win. Marine Le Pen has called this undemocratic, a sign that the political Left and Right have become the same thing: servants to other masters than the public, offended at the idea that citizens might choose candidates who they think will represent them.

Soumission has hovered at the top of sales lists in three European countries since it came out.
Soumission was published in English as Submission on the 20th of October 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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