Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’ Comes to America

Tobias Grey, Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2015

Publication day is a proud moment for most authors but it turned into a nightmare for Michel Houellebecq. The French writer’s sixth novel, “Submission,” which will be published in the U.S. next month, had been heralded as his most topical. The book imagines France in 2022 under the rule of an Islamic political party headed by a Muslim president.

On Jan. 7, the day “Submission” came out in France, the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo ran a caricature of the author on its cover. Bleary-eyed and sporting a wizard’s hat, the novelist was portrayed as a lugubrious prophet spouting asides like “In 2015 I’ll lose my teeth” or, more pointedly, “In 2022 I’ll observe Ramadan.”

On the same day two gunmen of the Islamic faith attacked the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people. Mr. Houellebecq, who lost a friend–the economist Bernard Maris–in the attack, has been under round-the-clock police protection since.

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“Submission” also has lofty ambitions. It isn’t so much an attack on Islam as an indictment of a two-party French political system which, in his view, has become tired and irrelevant. “I’d known for years that the widening gap, now a chasm, between the people and those who claimed to speak for them, the politicians and journalists, would necessarily lead to something chaotic, violent and unpredictable,” Mr. Houellebecq’s narrator says.

The novel imagines a political scene dominated by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party. To foil Ms. Le Pen’s presidential bid the mainstream parties join a coalition headed by a charismatic–and fictional–Muslim presidential candidate, Mohammed Ben Abbes.

When Ben Abbes, who heads the fictional Muslim Brotherhood party, wins the presidential election he gradually introduces measures in line with Islamic law, particularly in schools. Co-education is stamped out, teachers have to convert to Islam to keep their jobs and instruction in Islam is added to the French curriculum.

The novel’s antihero and narrator, François, is a bored middle-age professor who is passionate about the decadent symbolist French writer J.K. Huysmans. François allows that he is “about as political as a bath towel” but soon comes around to Ben Abbes upon learning that polygamy will be allowed.

In France, “Submission” has sold over 350,000 copies–a high figure even for a popular author like Mr. Houellebecq. It is a best seller in Germany and Italy and this month came out in the U.K. to largely positive reviews.

In France and elsewhere debates have broken out about whether the events in Mr. Houellebecq’s novel could happen. In an interview with a French radio station Ms. Le Pen called it “a fiction which could one day become a reality.” {snip}

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