Down the Slippery Slope
By Leslie S. Lebl
Friday, May 1st, 2015 @ 9:44PM
Left: Faiza Silmi, a 32-year-old Moroccan, walks past a bakery in a street of Le Mesnil-Saint-Denis, southwest of Paris, April 21, 2010, Credit CHRISTOPHE ENA / AP
Michel Houellebecq’s bestselling satirical novel Soumission, was published on January 7, the very same day the jihadists attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher Jewish supermarket in Paris. (The English version, Submission: A Novel, will be published in September 2015)
This satirical book caused a stir even before its publication, because it envisions France in 2022, when a member of the Muslim Brotherhood is elected president. Critics on the Left charged that predicting an Islamized France would only benefit the far right, while the right called it “prophetic.”
Houellebecq chooses as his narrator an all-too-common sort in early 21st century Europe; François, an intellectual but untalented teacher at one of the Sorbonne universities, who no longer cares about the 19th century novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans on whom he spent seven years to write a well-received doctoral thesis. His love life, if it merits that term, is no different. Each fall he takes up with a new female student, until they part company the following summer, usually at her initiative. After years of this, he realizes that he has failed to establish any meaningful relationship and is unlikely to find a mate. In fact, he realizes he has no real friends or family connections. All he does is subsist in his apartment on foreign fast-food carryout: he lacks even the traditional French devotion to good cooking.
While deficient in moral fiber, François is intelligent and observant. Just as he perceives that he is simply drifting through life in a meaningless fashion, his world is rocked by a presidential election in which the left teams up with a new Muslim Brotherhood party to defeat Marine Le Pen’s far right Front National. The left is way outgunned by the Brotherhood, which can deliver the votes in Muslim-majority districts. So the Brotherhood candidate becomes president, with a socialist as prime minister.
François, normally bored by politics, is deeply disturbed by this outcome, as is the latest of his ex-girlfriends. Myriam is Jewish, and soon informs him that she is emigrating to Israel with her parents. François tries to persuade her to stay but in the end notes wryly that at least she has a place to go, while “[t]here is no Israel for me.” He moves his money to a foreign bank account and leaves Paris for the countryside, but after several months returns home to discover profound changes at the university.
Paris III – Sorbonne has now become the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne, reflecting the priority the Muslim Brothers place on Islamic education. With abundant Saudi cash at the university’s disposal, professors now receive three times their former salaries. The only requirement is that they convert. Initially François resigns his post, accepting an equally generous pension. Time passes, and his life continues to stagnate. He even tries to replicate the experience of Huysmans, a so-called “decadent” writer who converted to Catholicism. But the experiment fails, in part because François discovers that the monastery does not permit smoking, and he returns once again to Paris. There he is courted by the new university president, himself a Muslim convert of long standing who needs to upgrade his faculty with someone of François’s reputation.
Houellebecq’s novel is a convincing, often hilarious depiction of the attractions Islam can offer an entrenched secularist like François. His tale offers a plausible scenario of how educated, secular Frenchmen – and other Westerners – might experience life under Islam: loss of individual and religious freedom, racial and religious discrimination, polygamy, and the abandonment of Haute Couture in favor of the burqa.
But Houellebecq does not stop there. He fits the antics of his narrator and the domestic transformation of France into a larger frame. The new Muslim president persuades the EU to expand its membership to the countries ringing the southern bank of the Mediterranean, in effect re-creating the Roman Empire under Islamic rule. This fulfills, in an unexpected guise, the centuries-old French ambition for a Mediterranean empire. Apparently, all that is required to restore French grandeur is soumission or submission, the literal translation of the word Islam. Yet, Houellebecq claims, and even the liberal Guardian agrees that the book is “not Islamo phobic.”
Soumission is well crafted: the portrait of François is tone-perfect and often comical, while his observations are trenchant, unsettling – and extremely pertinent. No wonder this book has become an instant in France.
* Soumission by Michel Houellebecq. Paris, Flammarion, 2015, 300 pp.