A few weeks ago, I submitted my review of French author Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission,” which had been published in France on the same day of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Then terrorists unleashed their latest assault on Paris.
Translated by Lorin Stein and released in the U.S. this month, the novel satirizes the rise to power by moderate (not radical) Muslims in the year 2022 and how the French people passively accept the political shift, hence the title.
In a run-off election between the far-right National Front and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Socialists give support to the Muslim Brotherhood out of fear for the National Front’s hard-line politics.
“Over the years, the rise of the far right had made things a little more interesting. It gave the debates a long-lost frisson of fascism.”
Before civil war erupts, the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election, making Mohammed Ben-Abbes the president. Once in office, Abbes enacts laws that take steps toward turning France into a more Islamic-oriented government: banning coeducation, enforcing a strict dress code for women, legalizing polygamy, forcing all professors to convert to Islam.
François, the narrator, teaches at the New Sorbonne and floats throughout the novel. He’s a loner who laments the change. “The next morning (or maybe that evening, I don’t remember: I spent the night of my defense [dissertation] alone and very drunk) I realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.”
In an interview earlier this year with The Guardian, Houellebecq admits he probably is Islamophobic, but the novel is neither Islamophobic nor pro-Islam — it simply is what it is. He straddles the line and ultimately presents a balanced argument for each side.
It may be an uncomfortable read in light of recent news. I can see how either side can warp Houellebecq’s work to fit its own agenda.
With such a polarizing premise, it’s Houellebecq’s mastery of his craft that makes this a universal story regardless of politics. He makes a passive character compelling and has a well-trained eye for honest human interactions. One instance of this occurs in a conversation between François and one of François’ friends.
“I maintained a tactical silence. When you maintain a tactical silence and look people right in the eye, as if drinking in their words, they talk. People like to be listened to, as every researcher knows — every researcher, every writer, every spy.”
Overall, I enjoyed the novel but worry how people will interpret the story. We must remember that this doesn’t show an inevitable future that can be used to justify hatred. We should accept “Submission” for what it is: a story.
“Submission,” by Michel Houellebecq (256 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26)