By Michel Houellebecq; translated from the original French by Lorin Stein;
Vintage paperback (2016); 250 pp.
This novel was originally published in France in 2015, at a time of great drama and tragedy. The Charlie Hebdo murders had recently taken place in Paris, and so one of the novel's themes – a partial takeover of the government of France by a Muslim political party – was highly controversial. One might say "a catastrophic, though totally unintentional, piece of bad timing".
I didn't know what to expect from this book. I haven't read any of the author's works before. From some of the (admittedly brief) press comments, I half-expected a political thriller, and a forcible subjugation of France by an armed Muslim insurgency. Or maybe it might be a thinly-disguised, fictionalised diatribe against the Islamic religion. Or possibly a story about the social disadvantages faced by France's substantial Muslim minority. In other words, I was in the dark.
"Submission" really turns out to be none of these things. It is more a tale about one man's existential angst and the spiritual vacuum at the heart of modern Western secular consumer culture. This tale is told in the form of relatively gentle, but, one suspects, heartfelt satire. The fictional takeover of France by a partly Muslim government is, actually, not the main point of the novel. The takeover is used as a backdrop for the writer's main concern: the spiritual bankruptcy of the West's consumer-driven civilisation and its deadening effects upon Westerners.
François is a professor of literature at a university in Paris. He is bored with life. His intellectual career, though successful, has come to a halt. He is not married. His private life consists of affairs with a succession of young students half his age. His latest affair – with Myriam, a young Jewish student of his – comes to an end when she migrates to Israel with her parents. His parents are dead and he has no siblings. François, though superficially successful in his career, is at a spiritual and emotional dead end, afraid of advancing age (he is only in his 40s) and being alone. He seeks solace with escort girls, but this brings no balm to his soul. His attempts to re-connect with his former Roman Catholic faith are a failure. He even contemplates suicide.
Meanwhile, in pending national elections (most of the novel is set circa 2017), the right-wing National Front looks like taking power. A coalition of a moderate Muslim political party and several non-Muslim parties is formed to contest the elections against the National Front. The coalition wins, the new French President is a Muslim, while his Prime Minister is not. Part of the political deal is that some aspects of French life will become Islamised, in particular, the education sector, the employment sector, and the status of women.
François' university is now financed by Saudi interests and becomes Islamic. If François wants to retain his job, he must convert to Islam. Instead, he decides to retire, but this doesn't last long; he is head-hunted by his old (now Islamic) university. They offer him a better position with more pay and the right to choose several wives from amongst the student body, as permissible under newly-introduced Islamic marriage law. Having no great religious feelings, but feeling alone and needing female company, François considers the offer seriously. His future in the new, Islamic academia of France would be assured, and his inner existential angst assuaged. Which way will he jump?
There is only a little violence in this glimpse into the future. The national elections are relatively peaceful, the new Muslim government is very moderate – Catholic and private secular schools continue in existence and only the state education system is Islamised – and the population adapts quite quickly and calmly to the new social and political regime. There is not an IS outrage or beheading anywhere in sight.
François is, of course, the central character. His existential ennui symbolises the spiritual void at the heart of modern Western culture. His attempts to turn meaningless sex (yes, there is a fair bit of it in this book) into something meaningful and long-term, parody, or satirise, the sex-saturated consumerism of the West today. His flirtation with Catholicism illustrates the author's thesis that Europe once had Christianity at its spiritual and cultural centre. With Christianity now in serious decline in western Europe, a new spiritual heart is needed to re-invigorate the continent's civilisation. What else is available? How about moderate Islam? After all, it is one of the 3 great Religions of the Book. Could it, or should it, fill the void at Europe's heart, now that Christianity seems to have failed?
Our hero doesn't really care. He will consider whatever religious guise brings him professional fame, money, and, above all else, a stable sex life. He has no philosophical objection to the idea of several wives. In this aspect of the character, the novelist seems to be commenting sourly on the misogynistic nature of the male half of mankind. François doesn't really care that most women have been compelled, under the new order, to leave the workforce. It doesn't concern him that many, if not most, women now wear veils. The new regime's switch from monogamy to polygamy is quite okay by him. The general reduction of women to secondary status has little impact on him – except it might solve his sexual and marital problems. Admittedly, English translations of foreign novels may not always capture 100% of the writer's intended nuances, but to me, Houellebecq seems to say: modern Western men don't care a fig for women, provided male interests are looked after.
Of course, holes may be picked here and there in the author's conception of this fictional future for France. Would the non-Muslim majority take so peacefully to a new regime so contrary to modern French history? I doubt it very much. Would the vast majority of French women accept their new, secondary status as peacefully and docilely, as happens in this story? Again, I very much doubt it. Would the National Front just sit back quietly and cop peacefully the relatively "soft soap" version of Islam that happens in this book? I don't think so – there would be blood in the streets. The French are very good at launching insurrections against their own governments. Just look at the history of civil revolt in France since Napoleonic times. And what would the French armed forces do?
(My own pet beef about the book is the author's apparent conviction that all, or most, male academics seek sex with their students, a misconception also shared by Hollywood. In my experience, such occurrences are rare. The writer has the honesty to admit he has never been to university, but consulted various academics on this aspect of his book. I, on the other hand, spent 3 decades in academia. In all that time, I think I personally came across only three examples of male academics "hitting on" female students. In two of those cases, the respective couples got married.)
But these relatively minor criticisms do not detract from what I consider to be the author's main theme: Western civilisation no longer has a spiritual heart. Its culture no longer gives hope and inspiration to the average man and woman in the street. The West has largely abandoned Christianity as its soul, and is now dry and empty. Something needs to take its place, or Western civilisation will crumble. A civil population, starved of a spiritual soul, can be prey to an idea, a spiritual value, a new way of living that gives some meaning to life – even at the risk of damage to a section of the population.
Along the way, the author discusses 19th-century French literature, Catholic architecture and liturgy, philosophy, both religious and otherwise, science versus religion, and the health of French academia. There is actually a lot packed into this book, even though it is only 250 pages long. In many ways, this is a book primarily for the "thinking" reader, interested in the great philosophical themes of mankind. The French are very good at writing this sort of book. "Submission" is a worthy, but also most interesting, example of this tradition.
Don't be put off. The author's writing style is easy to read, and his subversive ideas always challenging. Since the recent Australian elections, there has been increased debate about the pros and cons of Muslim immigration to this country, though some anti-democratic elements have tried to quell this discussion. This book might contribute something useful to the topic. I enjoyed “Submission”, and so will the more thoughtful book lover.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * 3/4