Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book Review: Submission by Michel Houellebecq

I didn't even want to fuck her, or maybe I kind of wanted to fuck her but I also kind of wanted to die, I couldn't really tell.
Francois is a professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and an expert on the great French author Joris-Karl Huysmans. Despite his cushy position, his life is empty. He has no real friends and his flings with colleagues and students are unfulfilling. His love for literature, Huysmans especially, seems to be all he really has.
Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave--a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you'd have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak so openly as when we face a blank page and address an unknown reader. 
In the background, France is undergoing a huge political upset. The nativist National Front is in the lead in the election, with the center-left Socialists and the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood tied for second. For his own safety, Francois flees Paris until the election, plagued by riots and violent interference with the polls, is over. With support from the Socialists, the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election and a charismatic politician named Mohammed Ben Abbes becomes president of France.

When Francois returns to Paris, he finds that it's already becoming Islamicized. His university is privatized and since now only Muslims may teach there, he's let go with a generous severance package. However, without his job, his already empty life becomes even more empty.
The past is always beautiful. So, for that matter, is the future. Only the present hurts, and we carry it around like an abscess of suffering, our companion between two infinities of happiness and peace.
The most obvious theme in Submission, right down to the title itself, is the battle of the West against Islam. It's worth noting this book was published the same day of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices. Houellebecq himself even lost a friend in the attack.

Myself, I was in Morocco when the attacks on Paris in November were happening. I had already been planning on reading this, and I felt compelled to order it as soon as I got back to the States.

Houellebecq predicts a much less violent Islamification of Paris than the current situation would suggest. There are several riots and attacks, however, they come as much from the French Nationalists as from Muslims. The media keeps the violence in the dark to try to prevent the country from breaking into outright civil war.

When Ben Abbes takes power, he implements policies to begin converting France to a Muslim country. Islamic schools are privileged over public ones to ensure a new generation of converts, family subsidies encourage women to leave the work force en mass (which also reduces unemployment), and talks begin to bring Morocco and Turkey into the European Union.

The loss of French identity runs through the story and, as the French are known for, they surrender it with little resistance. From what Francois learns of Ben Abbes, in the long term he is planning to absorb France into a wider Euro-Islamic empire. An empire to rival the Romans and the Ottomans. With Ben Abbes as president of course.

In a very sad moment in the book, Francois's Jewish girlfriend Myriam chooses to emigrate to Israel to escape the increasing anti-Semitic atmosphere in France. When she asks what he plans to do, he can only reply, "There is no Israel for me."

Despite Francois's apparent apathy, the story doesn't hide that something great is being lost. Why should the loss of the culture that produced great writers like Huysmans not be a tragedy?
I would have nothing to mourn.
Another idea presented is that Islam will take over the West because the West is a spiritual vacuum. Christianity is a shell of its former self. Secular humanism is an unsustainable replacement. It's ripe for something like Islam to step in and fill the void.
"Without Christianity, the European nations had become bodies without souls--zombies."
This is apparent even with Francois. Like his hero, Huysman, he finds himself attracted to the trappings of Catholicism. Unlike Huysman, his conversion simply doesn't take.
The Virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless. She had sovereignty, she had power, but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged, perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the parking lot. 
Even in the end when Francois gives in and converts to Islam, it's far more a means to an end, than for any real spiritual fulfillment.

Despite some of the arguments against secularism, atheism, and Christianity, the book still takes a grim view of Islam. Like Francois, most of the people convert out of pure convenience. Francois converts to get his job back and get arranged marriages with multiple young students. One of his socially awkward colleagues does the same.

The new university president, Rediger, seems sincere in his conversion, but he's not especially devout. When Francois researches some of his previous work, he finds that espouses a heavily elitist view of the world. One could easily imagine that Islam was simply the best vehicle available to him for this philosophy.

Even Ben Abbes (who we never met, but is discussed several times), a born and raised Muslim, seems driven by ambition more than anything. Ben Abbes is a politician through and through. He's highly charismatic and plays games with other Muslim nations for what seems to be his own ends.

It's implied early on that much of the French government was complicate in getting the Muslim Brotherhood in power. No conspiracy is explicitly stated, but it's not hard to infer one. It seems like the French elite realized the kind of situation they were in. Houellebecq himself likely harbors some ill will towards France's higher ups. Back in 2002 he had been put on trial for hate speech for saying Islam was the stupidest of all religions. No wonder he thinks the West is committing suicide.

Sell everyone out! We're better off working towards the worldwide caliphate! We'll be at the forefront of this new order!

Let's get off this train of thought before I go full Bat Ye'or. Ye'or and her "Eurabia" theory get an explicit mention in Submission. While Houellebecq doesn't outright endorse this idea in this book, it does seem like it was an influence on the story. Houellebecq is trying to create a scenario where "Eurabia" is a plausible future, rather than Protocols of Zion level nonsense.
"In a sense, old Bat Ye'or wasn't wrong with her fantasy of a Eurabian plot." 
Not all of the political discussions are especially plausible. For example, under the Muslim Brotherhood, crime starts to plummet. There seems to be no real reason why. Ben Abbes's policies, even in this fictional world, wouldn't cause the drop in crime that happens. Houellebecq is trying to show the appeal of this new regime, but moments like this really stretch it.

Despite all the talk of politics and the sociological implications of religion, Submission never loses its groundings in its main character, Francois. He's not exactly likable, but anyone who's ever felt ill at ease with the modern world will have some idea where he's coming from. The book benefits from being told from his point of view, because he's only knows so much. He has his own struggles to worry about in addition to all the changes in France going on around him.

If there's one flaw in the book, it's that some of the ways of making him privy to information on what's going on behind the scenes feels kind of contrived. One of his colleagues at the University just happens to be married to a member of a French security agency, and he learns about what the media's blacking out during the election. This doesn't really become important latter in the book, so it feels rather pointless. He doesn't learn much that doesn't eventually come out in the open anyway.

This is a controversial book for sure. Every review I've read of it has a different interpretation, and I've not agreed much with a single one of them. But goddamn, is it a good one. It's entertaining, intriguing, and it will make you rethink your outlook on the West vs. Islam conflict. Submission is a confirmation that Houellebecq is one of the best authors working today. Highly recommended.

Buy Submission by Michel Houellebecq here.

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