On the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the magazine's cover featured a caricature of controversial French author and provocateur Michel Houellebecq sporting a wizard's hat. "Predictions of the seer Houellebecq," reads the cover copy. The Houellebecq cartoon offers a pair of predictions: "In 2015, I'll lose my teeth," and, "In 2022, I'll observe Ramadan."
What's going on? Houellebecq's new novel, Soumission (Submission) is set in a near-future France ruled by a Muslim political party. Scheduled to be published in France on Wednesday, it had already inspired some highly charged controversy over whether its message—and its author—was Islamophobic. According to Laurent Joffrin, the editor in chief of the leftist paper Liberation, the book's publication "will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature." (Joffrin refers to Houellebecq as "serious" because he is the winner of several French literary awards.)
Like Charlie Hebdo itself, Houellebecq has been in trouble over his remarks on Islam before. (Indeed, Charlie Hebdo and Houellebecq are a nearly perfect pairing of Gallic provocation.) His 2001 novel, Platform, contains explicitly anti-Islamic passages, and in an interview he gave at the time, he expressed his belief that "Islam is the most stupid" of the monotheistic religions. (He also said he found monotheist belief itself to be "the act of a cretin.") Houellebecq was sued for inciting hatred against Muslims, but the court acquitted him on the grounds that criticism of religion was a legitimate activity.
In Soumission, a moderate Muslim-led party wins the French presidency with broad support in order to prevent National Front leader Marine Le Pen from winning the office. (She does win the office in a 2011 French political fantasy: Les Deux-Cents Jours de Marine Le Pen.)
The next day, according to a brief description in The Paris Review, "Women abandon Western dress. Most begin wearing long cotton smocks over their trousers; encouraged by government subsidies, they leave the workplace in droves. Male unemployment drops overnight. In formerly rough neighborhoods, crime all but disappears. Universities become Islamic. Non-Muslim teachers are forced into early retirement unless they convert and submit to the new regime."
In the wake of the massacre and the death of close friends on the Charlie Hebdo staff, Houellebecq has suspended his promotional appearances and left Paris for an undisclosed destination.
However, Houellebecq recently gave an extended interview about his book to France Info, which has been translated and posted by The Paris Review.
In writing his novel, he says
I tried to put myself in the place of a Muslim, and I realized that, in reality, they are in a totally schizophrenic situation. Because overall Muslims aren't interested in economic issues, their big issues are what we nowadays call societal issues. On these issues, obviously, they are very far from the left and even further from the Green Party. Just think of gay marriage and you'll see what I mean, but the same is true across the board. And one doesn't really see why they'd vote for the right, much less for the extreme right, which utterly rejects them. So if a Muslim wants to vote, what's he supposed to do? The truth is, he's in an impossible situation. He has no representation whatsoever. It would be wrong to say that this religion has no political consequences—it does. So does Catholicism, for that matter, even if the Catholics have been more or less marginalized. For those reasons, it seems to me, a Muslim party makes a lot of sense.
Asked why he addressed his subject "in such a dramatically exaggerated way," he cited "my mass market side, my 'thriller' side."
The France Info interviewer suggests that Soumission is part of a paranoid right-wing reaction to Muslim immigration. Such authors see Islam hanging like a threat over French culture, deforming it. Among the most outspoken of these works is Eric Zemmeur's Le Suicide français (France's Suicide).
Asked to compare his novel to such books, Houellebecq says, "I don't think we are witnessing a French suicide. I think we are seeing practically the opposite. Europe is committing suicide and, in the middle of Europe, France is struggling desperately to survive… What's more, for people to convert is a sign of hope, not a threat. It means they aspire to a new kind of society."
Overall, Houellebecq argues, "You can't really describe this book as a pessimistic prediction. At the end of the day, things don't go all that badly, really." (Except for the women, which Houellebecq agrees is "a whole other problem.") As for who plays the villain in his book, he says, "It's not clear what we are meant to be afraid of, nativists or Muslims. I leave that unresolved."
Houellebecq admits in the course of the interview that some of his answers may be contradicted by his novel (or vice versa). You can read the whole thing here, with its many references to the positivist philosopher August Comte, the decadent novelist J.K. Huysmans, a dismissal of the Enlightenment, and Houellebecq's own current belief that religion is necessary to society. Readers looking for a pulp yarn about an imperialist Islam will have to look elsewhere. (Tom Kratman's Caliphate, a work of military sf, may fit that bill.)
Houellebecq's book will be published in English in September.
One last point of possible interest. Houellebecq's Wikipedia page says that "a recurrent theme in Houellebecq's novels is the intrusion of free-market economics into human relationships and sexuality. Whatever (original title, Extension du domaine de la lutte, which literally translates as 'extension of the domain of the struggle') alludes to economic competition extending into the search for relationships. As the book says, a free market has winners and losers, and the same applies to relationships in a society that does not enforce monogamy. Westerners of both sexes already seek exotic locations and climates by visiting developing countries in organized trips. In Platform, the logical conclusion is that they would respond positively to sex tourism organized and sold in a corporate and professional fashion."
In Houellebecq's world, it turns out that submission has as many possible causes as it has happy adherents.