Sunday, October 25, 2015


the Spanish edition has the best cover I think
Soumission is the new novel by Michel Houellebecq. Set in the France of 2022 it imagines the growth in the far right National Front party and the possibility of Marianne Le Pen becoming President of the Fifth Republic; in out-right panic the French left unifies behind a moderate Muslim candidate for president and he wins. The moderate Muslim turns out not to be so moderate: sharia law is introduced, the burka is made compulsory dress for women, harsh Islamic penal codes are introduced (including the return of the death penalty) women are banned from most jobs and building on decades of political correctness heavy censorship is introduced. In Houellebecq's fiction these reforms prove to be very popular - especially the full employment that is created when women are forced back into the home and the grisly penal system which satisfies a latent blood lust. The French people adapt to life under sharia with a gallic shrug just as most French people adapted to life under Vichy. 
Much ink has been spilled on the implausibility of Houellebecq's book but I don't think it's as implausible as all that. Certainly in 2022 this is an unlikely scenario but if demographic trends continue (4 words that you should always take with a pinch of salt) France could have a Muslim majority by 2050. And as for the rise of the far right? Well yesterday a very right wing government came to power in Poland, in Hungary the far right rules and anti immigration parties are increasingly relevant across much of Europe. No, the plausibility or implausibility of the book is a red herring, what's more important to ask is, is the book any good? And the answer to that is no not really. With rare exceptions most writers lose their sense of humour as they get older. The gift of melody and the gift of humour don't seem to flourish much past the age of 40 and Houellebecq's best books seem to be behind him now. Platform, Lanzarote, Atomised and to a lesser extent The Map and the Territory were biting and funny satires of French life and culture, Soumission is not quite up there with those, I'm afraid. I don't mind when a writer grinds his axe and shows you the grinding of the axe page after page as long as that axe grinding is entertaining or arresting or lyrical or funny. Soumission is axe grinding for the sake of axe grinding and the targets are pretty easy: French Islamists, Parisian left wing intellectuals, self important actors and politicians etc. Who couldn't make a book out of mocking those dudes? To borrow from Truman Capote: Houellebecq isn't so much writing this story as typing it. 
Soumission is a book with a lot of baggage. Houellebecq was on the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine when two unhinged Islamists burst into the offices and massacred most of the staff. Houellebecq himself went into hiding and now has a 24 police escort. You want to recommend Soumission just to spite those lunatics who threaten civil society and freedom of speech in the west, but I can't recommend it because I didn't really like it that much. (A fortiori I didn't like The Satanic Verses either (Rushdie - it seems to me - like Joseph Heller, really only had one book in him.)) I don't know if Houellebecq has shot his bolt now. He's living in a dismal part of Paris in a grim flat under more or less house arrest. I think maybe a holiday in Thailand might be good for him and for the rest of us who'd enjoy a return to his earlier, funnier, better books.