This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 27th September 2015.
In Arabic, “Islam” means “submission” – “voluntary submission to God,” with added connotations of wholeness, safety, and peace. Translated into English (or French), the word resonates rather differently. When, in 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the Somali dissident Ayaan Hirsi Ali released a short polemical film about Muslims’ treatment of women, they called it Submission. Their intention was clear: “submission,” in English, is a posture of defeat. Van Gogh was murdered for his satirical effrontery: stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street in November 2004 by an Islamist fanatic named Mohammed Bouyeri. Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding.
Now the word “submission,” with all its attendant unwelcome ironies, has returned to haunt us once again. Michel Houellebecq’s sixth novel appeared in France on 7th January, 2015. This was the day on which two masked men carrying assault rifles walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the Marais and shot 11 people, in revenge – they said – for the paper’s publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Houellebecq was Charlie Hebdo’s cover story that week, for his novel about the peaceful rise to power of an Islamic government in a near-future France – a novel called Submission.
The Anglophone press has painted Submission as a kind of Dreadful Warning – France must not capitulate to Islamist terror! – and Houellebecq as a kind of reactionary prankster, a dolled-up purveyor of highbrow porn whose pronunciations on Islam mark him out as basically unserious. But in France, Houellebecq’s novels are taken very seriously (after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, even Francois Hollande made sure to announce that Submission had jumped to the top of his reading list), and Houellebecq himself is taken for what he is: a subtle and profound critic of both Islam and the West.
The narrator of Submission, Francois, is a 43-year-old lecturer at the University of Paris III-Sorbonne. He teaches 19th century literature, even though “the academic study of literature leads basically nowhere.” He lives alone in a high-rise apartment in Chinatown and subsists on a diet of microwaveable Indian curries. His sex life is limited to brief, inconclusive affairs with his female students. He no longer speaks to his parents and he has no other family. “Should I just die?” he wonders. But: “The decision struck me as premature.”
Meanwhile, it’s 2022: a Presidential election year in France. The two most popular candidates are Marine le Pen of the National Front, and the charismatic Muhammad Ben Abbes, leader of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. After some initial tremors – shootings, stolen ballot boxes – Ben Abbes smoothly accedes to the Presidency. The star and crescent rise over Paris’s public buildings. Women are no longer allowed to work. France submits to Sharia law. Will Francois, too, submit?
Thus baldly summarized, Submission does indeed sound like a Dreadful Warning. But Houellebecq is a sly and sinuous operator, and his satire is always Janus-faced: he wants us to see not just our ideological opponents but ourselves, and his message to the West is a grim one. Francois is haunted by the life and work of the 19th century Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose most famous novel, À rebours (1884), described a European civilisation dying, as the critic Arthur Symons phrased it, of too much civilisation – the very predicament in which Francois finds himself, as the Muslim Brotherhood overturns an exhausted and nihilistic democracy and replaces it with the sinister vigour of revealed religion. Huysmans’s solution to the problem of nihilism was to become a Catholic; and so Francois finds himself tempted to convert to Islam, simply to join – as it were – the winning team.
Submission is a deeply literary novel, but it is also a deeply satisfying entertainment – quite aside from all the heavy stuff about the decline of the West, there’s also a good helping of Houellebecq’s signature sex and existential comedy, as well as some good jokes about the enduring stubbornness of male chauvinism. His prose is brisk and perceptive and, in Lorin Stein’s translation, sublimely readable. To write a novel that is both a cunningly-fashioned literary artefact and a suggestive intervention in a bloodily pertinent public debate is no small thing; with Submission, Houellebecq proves that he is still one of the most interesting novelists alive.