Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Submission - Michel Houellebecq (2015)

French writer Michel Houellebecq is a true enfant terrible, offending with each novel and his frequent inflammatory comments. Although his work has been praised widely it has also attracted its share of negative criticism, with accusations of sexism, racism and just about every other kind of ism you can think of (including jism? - undoubtedly....) In 2002 he stirred up trouble by referring to Islam as “the dumbest religion” and was subsequently tried and then acquitted of inciting racial hatred, with Houellebecq successfully arguing that he was critiquing the religion and not Muslims themselves. Aside from all the controversy Houellebecq is a clever and accomplished writer; the other book of his I’ve read, Atomized (1998), was an excellent, if bleak, existential satire on the fragmentation of the family unit. Submission finds Houellebecq tackling the question of Islam once more, but unexpectedly the novel is a spot on critique of Western culture, rather than Islam.

Submission is set in the year 2022, in which a moderate French Muslim political party becomes the logical middle path between opposing parties and takes power. Looking on is dissolute middle aged academic Francois, an expert on French writer Charles Marie Georges Huysmans, famous for his 1844 novel A Rebours (Against Nature), which defined the then burgeoning decadent literary movement (Huysmans importance here is significant, unfortunately requiring a long essay in itself, something I’m far to dissolute to even bother about...). It is very clear from the outset that Francois personifies the soulless secular Western world weakened by rampant capitalism and superficiality that Houellebecq is satirizing. Francois describes himself as being “ political as a bath towel” and although he ironically states that election night TV is his second favourite show, it doesn’t stop him from changing the channel to watch a reality TV show about obesity. Francois’ life oozes both pathos and bathos as he contemplates middle-age turning into an old age plagued by illness, regret and loneliness.

Submission, although it explores important themes, is not particularly realistic;  rather Houellebecq uses its deceptively simple, almost cartoonish premise, as a means to both satirize superficial Western culture and perhaps more pertinently, to reveal a deeper historical truth. When Francois leaves Paris as the elections are being decided he travels to Rocamadour, a medieval town in the south of France, to see the statue of the Black Virgin, one of France’s most important Christian artifacts. Francois reflects that French kings and medieval warriors knelt to pray before the Black Virgin before defending Christian France, and consequently Europe itself, against the invading Muslim forces from Spain. Before he visits the Black Virgin Francois takes some time to look out over the valleys and hills around the town, reflecting that this region was where Cro-Magnon humans displaced Neanderthals into Spain, where they would eventually become extinct. The simple truth Houellebecq hints at here is that ultimately existence is a struggle for survival and consequently peoples, nations and cultures can easily and perhaps inevitably be usurped and swept away by those that are more united and adaptable. France is no longer united behind Christianity and is instead a culture in the thrall of the gaudy pleasures and pain of capitalism and, by extension, secularism.

Submission certainly has its flaws; it’s uneven, with sections that are ultimately boring, in particular those dealing with French politics. The novel is written in Houellebecq’s typically flat style that engenders a palpable sense of bleakness within the reader. The novel also features his usual explicit sex scenes, in this case used as a means to illustrate Francois general middle-aged ennui. Submission is also perhaps too simplistic, with no significant female characters and a French society that totally capitulates to a radical change of circumstances. Despite this Submission succeeds because it defies readers’ preconceptions and instead stands as an intriguing and mostly entertaining thought experiment that explores the uncomfortable notion that France is ripe for the picking, and potentially the rest of the Western world.

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