French Future Tense
Soumission by Michel Houellebecq
French and European Publications, Inc., 2015
(320 pages, $49.95, paperback)
English translation forthcoming September 2015
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
Wednesday, January 7, 2015, was a day when fact crashed into fiction. The novel, Soumission (Submission) by Michel Houellebecq, depicting a near future in which France submits to Islam, was released for publication on that day. So was a new issue of the French satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo, with Houellebecq as the featured author.
That same morning two Islamic terrorists paid a visit to the offices of Charlie Hebdo to avenge the Islam-baiting cartoons that had appeared in the previous issue. The gunmen killed eleven people there, including the editor, a friend of Houellebecq, and wounded eleven others. Houellebecq canceled all future promotional gigs for his novel, accepted police protection, and went into hiding. Reality or fiction? Is there a difference?
The novel opens during the tumultuous days of the French presidential election of 2022. Though the election is shaping up to be a standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalistic party of Marine Le Pen, the sclerotic left and center parties join to endorse the charismatic Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Ben Abbes. The novel shows the rapidity, but more than that, the inevitability, and in places even the eagerness, with which France embraces its "dhimmitude" (submission to Islam without conversion) or, just as frequently, conversion itself.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its leader are fictional, but no sharp line separates fact from fiction in this story. Most of the politicians, pundits, and intellectuals involved are drawn from the actual élites in French politics, media, and academia. They act in character under their own names.
A Parable of François
Hence the difficulty of remembering, as one reads Soumission, that it's a novel. The author calls it a kind of political thriller, which accounts for its page-turning appeal. Some reviewers think it's a satire, because they only notice its mordant wit. But it would be more accurate to call it true. Not factual, I mean, but true. Like a parable.
Only the first name of the protagonist is revealed. It is François: a common French name of course, but also the old spelling of the adjective meaning "French." François is the French. He is clever and witty and well-educated. François is an expert in nineteenth-century French literature, concentrating on the novelist J. K. Huysmans, who transcended the decadent movement of his century to end his life as a Catholic writer and an oblate of the Benedictine Abbey at Ligugé.
Huysmans is François' subject; his is also, in a way, the conversion François takes it upon himself to replicate, if he can. Soumission's telling epigraph is from one of Huysmans' late novels. It describes a man who finds worship moving, but afterwards returns to his ordinary life "dry and without emotion." François learns that he is that man, and Soumission is about how a modern François lives, after coming to that conclusion.
Naturally, he looks for satisfaction in the usual places. He has leisure enough to drink and smoke a lot. His work is appreciated by as large and important a circle of academic writers as any one of their tribe can reasonably expect. His classes reliably supply him with a bedmate each September, who can also be counted on to write him with charming emotion sometime in mid-summer that she has "met" a special someone, and so will be leaving room in his bed for next autumn's successor.
Graeme Hunter is a contributing editor to Touchstone and Research Professor of Philosophy at Dominican University College in Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate).
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