The novel 'Submission' was published in France on the day of the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Houellebecq has often been critical of Islam in the past, but his new book does away with polemics.
One should read this novel with a cool head, was how one reviewer at a major German daily newspaper recommended readers approach "Submission." The book by the famous French author Michel Houellebecq will only officially hit the stores on January 16, but its content is already being eagerly analyzed and debated. Indeed, it may be difficult to approach the novel with a "cool head" - especially following the dramatic events that took place in Paris on Wednesday.
There is little evidence of cool heads in Germany. Tensions are rising even in the editorial offices of the county's cultural media. One major German Sunday paper, as well as a highly regarded television arts program, referred to a "radical Muslim" becoming president of France while discussing the novel. This is completely off-track - and goes to show that art has - once again - been caught in the firing line of a heated debate.
For the hotheaded commentators, it's not about the art
The phenomenon is well known. The content of "The Satanic Verses" was not what piqued most people's attention when it was published in 1988, rather the fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini got people talking. The case of Rushdie - and indeed most likely this new book from Houellebecq - confirm one thing: radical agitators are not concerned with art or literature but only in servicing their own aims. But the enlightened world should take a different viewpoint.
In the case of "Submission" a fresh viewpoint is worthwhile. Houellebecq is the most successful French author of our time, and his books are translated into over 40 languages. His sixth novel, "Submission," is a singular work. Houellebecq develops a political and societal future vision of his home country. Indeed, in the end a Muslim is president of the "grande nation." The difference is he's not a radical extremist, but a charismatic, intelligent even visionary Muslim who holds true to the dream of a large and united Europe.
Many voices on Islam and France
Perhaps Houellebecq wanted to give his novel more credibility by doing this and avoiding accusations of publishing propaganda against a major world religion. But it needs to be said: "Submission" develops a multi-faceted vision of French society with many nuances. The book doesn't offer a polemic but develops a literary panorama with people from across society's classes appear and speak their mind - mainly in conversation with the protagonist.
The protagonist is Francois, a literary professor who was once famous in intellectual circles for his work about the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. Francois is depicted by Houellebecq as a lonesome person who, incapable of deep human relations, is scared of his own physical decay and has suicidal thoughts. He meets with a few remaining acquaintances - he doesn't really have true friends. Or he buries himself in his library with loads of alcohol. He occasionally hires prostitutes. A typical Houellebecq figure - like the ones we all know from the writer's previous novels.
Houellebecq describes Francois amid 2022's looming French presidential elections. The far-right Front National under Marine Le Pen is the dominant political force in the country, the Socialists and a Muslim group are running about equal and the conservative, bourgeois right has shrunk. After a second term under the Presidency of Francois Hollande, the country fails to climb free from economic and social crisis. In order to avoid Marine Le Pen becoming president, the conservative and the Socialists decide to support the moderate Muslim candidate, Mohammed Ben Abbes.
The rebuilding of the French state
What continues is the slow and surprisingly peacefully depiction of the rebuilding of the French state. Blood was flowing before the election in civil war-like confrontations. Then peace prevails after the elections and unemployment and crime both decrease. Farmers and small business owners receive support and blossom while big industry has to pay its dues. This all, of course, has its price, which Houellebecq doesn't ignore. In this world women are no longer part of the workforce. The school and education system is being rebuilt and Muslim institutions are being developed. However, there is freedom of religion.
"It is submission, never before expressed with such terrific force, a simple but grand idea that the ultimate human happiness is in absolute submission," Houellebecq writes into the mouth of the director of a university where Francois once taught and is being welcomed back with opened arms by its Muslim leadership.
The latest edition of satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" featured news of the novel in its pages, before the attack
Every reader needs to ask themselves how much irony plays a part in Houellebecq's work. The author, of course, has not painted a picture of an ideal France as an Islamic state. "Submission" does not lack criticism of Islam, but it also doesn't dwell on it. What is highly irritating about this literary style is the way Houellebecq presents his views of the future in such an apparently sober and emotionless manner. But that is typical for the author. He did the same in previous works with other highly topical issues, such as cloning and globalization. Houellebecq is sober and laconic - and often very funny - but he doesn't judge. That's a challenge readers have to deal with.
The novel "Submission" was published on January 7 in France. It is due to be published in the UK in September, a publication date for the United States has not yet been set.