Michel Houellebecq, Soumission (Submission), Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 2015, 300 pp.
Designated as “the most important novel of 2015,” Soumission, by Michel Houellebecq , is a provocative French political cautionary tale. Houellebecq is a well-known, controversial French poet, film-maker and writer. His books include extremely graphic sex scenes and scathing attacks on French intellectual elites, thus making him a popular author in France. They have been translated into several languages. Nevertheless, reviewers of his novels have expressed criticism and occasionally, disgust. The Muslim presence in France is one of the themes in his books. Although his views appear as fiction, they have angered Muslims. The World Islamic League sued him for incitement to racial hatred, but he was acquitted by a French court. In 2010, the French literary establishment awarded him the prestigious Goncourt Prize for his novel, La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory). Toward the end of 2014, details emerged about his new book, scheduled to appear on January 7, 2015. Its title, Soumission (Submission), provoked speculation and condemnation. The word “submission” is the translation of the word “Islam,” or, more precisely, Islam implies surrender. When used in a religious sense, it means surrender to the will of Allah.
The plot of this futuristic novel takes place in France in 2022. The incumbent, Socialist President Francois Hollande has concluded his second term of office and general elections are about to take place in an atmosphere of social unrest and growing insecurity. The emerging, allegedly moderate Islamic party unites with the socialists and the moderate right in order to defeat the right-wing National Front. Hence, Mohammed Ben Abbes and his “Islamic Fraternity” party win the election. François, a lack-luster academic, is the narrator of the story. Afraid of commitment, a 42-year-old bachelor, whose sexual affairs are related at length, François passively watches the gradual Islamic take-over of his country. Women must wear modest clothing in public and are advised to stay at home. The Gulf monarchies invest in the French economy. Male unemployment drops and François finally has an opportunity for promotion at the university and access to other prestigious sectors, – on condition that he converts to Islam. He is tempted to do so by the prospect of having four wives. Briefly, a new caliphate is on the horizon and Europe surrenders to its new masters without firing a single shot. The book ends with Francois converting to Islam, accepting a prestigious academic position and looking forward to marrying a nubile student and an older woman who will keep house for him.
Even prior to its publication, Soumission provoked violent reactions in France. The president of the French League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) was quoted in all of the major newspapers as saying that it was the best Christmas present the leader of the National Front could have wished for. (Houellebecq refuted this argument in a number of interviews, arguing that Marine Le Pen has no need for his support). In a virulent video,1 the editor of Le Monde des Livres, the literary review of the prestigious daily, Le Monde, expressed his feelings of “nausea” and “revolt.” In fact, on January 6, 2015, a day before the book was to go on sale, David Pujadas, star anchor of the evening news on Channel Two, the second channel of French public television, hosted Michel Houellebecq for a prime time interview.2 And, the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, dedicated its front page3 to the author, who was portrayed wearing a magician’s pointed hat, saying: “In 2015, I will lose my teeth. In 2022, I will celebrate Ramadan.” Additional interviews were scheduled.
Soumission was on its way to becoming a bestseller when the unthinkable occurred. On January 7, 2015, Muslim terrorists targeted the office of Charlie Hebdo, and murdered much of its staff, its leading cartoonists and several bystanders. While the terrorists were found and killed by the police, another Muslim terrorist killed a policewoman and then took Jewish shoppers hostage in a kosher supermarket in Paris, murdering four of them in cold blood. The police stormed the place and stopped the terrorist with a hail of bullets. These events plunged France into a state of shock. As a result, Soumission became a bestseller overnight, while controversy continued. Supporters and detractors of Houellebecq hotly debated the book on popular television programs and it was the subject of lengthy articles in the foreign media.
Only a few commentators however, understood that the true importance of the book goes beyond an attack on Islam. Among them was Israel’s leftist daily, Haaretz, which described it as “a story of France’s quiet surrender to Islamic rule,4” the deeper meaning of the strangely disturbing book. Similarly, Adam Gopnik, the well-known and unabashedly Francophile New Yorker staffer, presented a similar interpretation. In his lengthy essay entitled “Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobic Satire,”5 Gopnik shows “how the French élite are cravenly eager to collaborate with the new regime, delighted not only to convert but to submit to a bracing and self-assured authoritarianism. Like the oversophisticated Hellenists in [C.P.] Cavafy’s poem, they have been secretly waiting for the barbarians all their lives …. the principal target of the satire is not French Islam—which is really a bystander that gets, at most, winged—but the spinelessness of the French intellectual class, including … the narrator. The jokes are all about how quickly the professors find excuses to do what’s asked of them by the Islamic regime, and how often they refer to the literature they study to give them license to do.” Gopnik goes one step further: “The charge that Houellebecq is Islamophobic seems misplaced. He’s not Islamophobic. He’s Francophobic. The portrait of the Islamic regime is quite fond; he likes the fundamentalists’ suavity and sureness.”
In fact, in the interview with David Pujadas, Houellebecq is at pain to stress that part of the problem as he sees it is that more people are turning to religion – any religion – in reaction to what is perceived as a hollowness and lack of purpose in French society. If that is the case, perhaps it is not surprising that French media figures and intellectuals, who do like the bleak portrayal of their country, prefer to accuse Houellebecq of Islamophobia. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, a relatively new political party, the “Party of the Muslims of France” is flexing its political muscle in local elections, with modest results to date but with great expectations.
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2 Available on YouTube, Houellebecq/Pujadas