Michel Houellebecq's Submission takes a nuanced view on Islam
William Heinemann, $33
Will we ever be able to separate Michel Houellebecq's sixth novel Submission from its historical moment? Submission was published in France on January 7, the same day that two gunmen stormed the Paris office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people in a terror attack inspired by radical Islam. Houellebecq happened to be on the cover of the magazine that week, depicted as a debauched Nostradamus with dire prophecies about a Muslim takeover.
Just as there will always be a few who think that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were somehow asking for it, there will also be those who assume that Submission must be a mindless, blasphemous provocation and that its author has blood on his hands. After all, Submission imagines a France seven years from now, under Muslim rule. But here is the surprising thing: Houellebecq's view is much more subtle and nuanced than his critics would expect.
Houellebecq was famously an Islamophobe until he actually read the Koran and understood it as a call to prayer not a manifesto of violence. Similarly, if Houellebecq's more moralistic critics were to read Submission, without being put off by the pornographic sex that he sprinkles liberally through his novels, they would see that the satirist has developed a deeper, sadder understanding of the need for religious belief to sustain cultures. Not that he can quite manage it himself.
Submission is partly a speculative fiction about France in the near future on the eve of an election when the National Front and the Muslim Brotherhood vie for dominance and partly a biographical essay about the power of literature: "Only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs." Francois is a typical Houellebecq hero: a single, hedonistic man in middle age, sexually obsessed but uncommitted and mildly depressed. He is an academic who specialises in JK Huysmans, the decadent 19th century author of A Rebours (Against Nature) who converted to Catholicism.
As his life hits rock bottom, and as France becomes politically unstable, Francois considers doing the same but Catholicism already seems like something from the past, a relic of the Europe that is in steady decline. Everything is always ending in Houellebecq novels – even literature. Perhaps Islam, with its simplicity, its notion of "submission" and its focus on the here and now not the great beyond, is a better fit. Far from attacking Islam, Houellebecq suggests it could be France's last, best hope. Maybe it's more than the country's out of touch elites deserve. Maybe it's better to stop resisting and surrender.