Soumission (Submission) by Michel Houellebecq is a somewhat plausible account of France transforming into an Islamic State in the near future. It was coincidentally published on January 7th, 2015, the same day as the Charlie Hebdo attack. To make matters worse, Houellebecq himself, “the enfant terrible” of French literature, appeared as a caricature on the front page of the week’s issue. The timing could not have been better or worse depending on how you view it. It undoubtedly gave a lot of publicity to the author but also incurred the wrath of many Muslims who already viewed him as a provocateur for his many unflattering comments about Islam. So what is the brouhaha about? Is it an Islamaphobic work of fiction or does it depict the reality of a changing Europe under the guise of satire? It was an engaging read that I read in less than two days in the original French. In my opinion, the book is much more than an anti-Islam polemic. The main premise of the novel is that secularization of the western world has resulted in a moral crisis and has left a vacuum providing the perfect opportunity for a traditional religion like Islam to fill the void.
The story is told through the eyes of François, a cynical and disillusioned middle-aged professor who teaches nineteenth century literature at the Sorbonne. He has no friends and lives a lonely and empty life filled with alcohol, microwave dinners, pornography downloads and sexual exploits with students half his age. He is starting to worry about his waning sexual prowess. There seems to be a pattern in his dating life. The girls he dates eventually lose interest in him and find someone else. His girlfriend Miriam walks out on him when he talks about the benefits of patriarchy. He is estranged from his parents and has no interest in politics. The only constant presence in his life is a deceased figure from the past. François is an expert on the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans, a naturalist turned decadent author who was also the subject of his PhD dissertation and his academic work. He waxes poetic about the ability of literature to connect us with others. Though the fine arts can move you and leave you with wonder, it is only literature, he avers, that can give you the sensation of contact with another human being, with his strengths and weaknesses, his beliefs and ideas. François has spent so much time researching Huysmans that he considers him a trusted friend. In fact, there are many uncanny parallels between the two lives.
François seems to be suffering from what he himself refers to as ‘andropause’. France is also going through a similar andropause with its decline in family and spiritual values. The year is 2022 and we witness the growing political clout of Islam in the Presidential elections. The right wing ‘Front National’ led by Marine Le Pen is poised to win but in the run -off election, the Socialists, after negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood ( Fraternité Musulmane), manage to thwart her efforts at victory. François Bayrou, a present day centrist politician, becomes the next Prime Minister of France and Mohammed Ben Abbes, the fictional leader of the Fraternité Musulmane , the next President. The latter dreams of transforming France, Europe and the entire Mediterranean region into a moderate Islamic state and invites Turkey, Morocco, Libya, Egypt and other Northern African countries to join the EU. France is gradually Islamized and women are veiled. These changes are inevitable but the rapidity with which they are adopted seems quite startling and far-fetched.The Sorbonne becomes an elite Islamic institution financed by Saudi money. Non-Muslims are no longer allowed to teach in government funded institutions unless they are willing to convert. François, as a consequence, loses his teaching position. Along with his job, he also loses his Jewish girlfriend Miriam who emigrates with her family to Israel. Under the hegemony of Islam, the economy is booming and unemployment is low as women leave the workforce in droves.
France is going through enormous changes but François is mainly interested in pursuing his hedonistic pleasures. Like Huysmans he moves anchorless through life. Huysmans eventually converted to Catholicism and lived as a Benedictine oblate, faith serving as the antidote to his nihilism. François does some soul searching of his own and follows the same trajectory as the subject of his dissertation. He visits Rocamadour to see the Black Madonna and also goes on a retreat to the same Catholic monastery in Poitiers where Huysmans took monastic vows but unlike Huysmans, he doesn’t find redemption in the Catholic faith. He decides that he would rather smoke cigarettes than lead a spiritual life there. Houellebecq has chosen an interesting name for his main character as François could very well represent his nation’s citizens plagued by ennui and apathy. Along with Islam, modern France is also the butt of the author’s ridicule. The liberal individualism and laïcité of the West have resulted in a decline in the birth rate and the erosion of the family unit. A clumsy aspect in the structure of the novel is how characters are introduced to expound ideas. A spouse of a colleague who had worked for the DGSI enlightens François on the political state of the country and Robert Rediger, the new head of the Sorbonne, who has converted to Islam, tries to persuade him to give up his atheism and return to the University. Rediger has a philosophical discussion with François on the downfall of western civilization. He refers to the historian Toynbee’s idea that civilizations die not by murder but by suicide. Again, we have an interesting choice of name for a character. The French verb ‘rédiger’ means to compose, to write, to direct or to draft.
While reading the book ‘Ten Questions about Islam’ authored by Rediger, François jumps straight to the chapter on polygamy. He is lured by the prospect of converting to Islam. Not only will he regain his position at the Sorbonne with a fat pay check, but also be able to choose three nubile wives from his students. Houellebecq focuses mostly on polygamy as if that were the only salient aspect of the religion. But that is exactly what interests the protagonist. He has no problem embracing the changes as they serve his self-interest. Even before women started wearing burqas, the protagonist treated his women like objects. The novel portrays the new reality in a comical and ironical way to show how one patriarchal system supplants another. Of course, Houellebecq conveniently forgets that Islam prohibits alcohol when the professor and his colleagues continue drinking excessively.
Islam, in Arabic means submission to the will of God. François submits to the new order just as he submits to Islam and his own submission is motivated by the thought of women submitting to him. Islam taking control over France could turn out well for the middle aged professor who is tempted by the prospect of having many young brides but what about French women? There is no mention of their fate. Here is where the book appears misogynistic and leaves you with a profound sense of malaise. Or maybe therein lies the veiled satire (pun unintended).
Soumission is a disturbing but thought-provoking book on declinism, on a civilization on the brink, a civilization whose values of individualism, liberalism and secularism are threatened by Islam. It is much more than a diatribe against Islam. It is also a scathing attack on modern France and the hypocrisy of elite intellectuals. Would we value our values enough to not capitulate to a trending global ideology? It is a brilliant book, as funny as it is dark, reminiscent of Voltaire’s Candide. Is it provocative, racist, satirical or is it simply portraying the reality? Is it a dystopian or utopian vision of the future? Do surrender yourself to the pleasure of reading the book ( The title is Submission, after all.) and form your own opinion. It remains to be seen if Houellebecq’s prescient premonition comes to fruition.