Only the Present Hurts: A Review of Michael Houellebecq's 'Submission'

In a terrible act of coincidence, Michel Houllebecq’s novel Submission hit the shelves on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In fact, Houellebecq himself was parodied on the cover of that week’s edition of the magazine. The novel’s title is a literal translation of “Islam,” and it tracks a few months in the life of the ageing professor François, a specialist on the 19th century French writer J. K. Huysmans. Submission envisages a violent and chaotic 2022 French election, in which leftist and centrist parties align themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood party, which eventually wins the election, to deprive the increasingly popular Front National of government. Through the confused journeys of François, whose name implies a representation of France as a whole, Houellebecq shows us submissions of many kinds.

Those who know only Houellebecq the Hater but have not yet read more than a description of Submission will probably expect this review to attack the novel’s supposed Islamophobic currents. This is a reasonable expectation when one looks at Houellebecq’s past, as he was once taken to court for inciting racial hatred, and later acquitted, after calling Islam “the dumbest religion.” Yet in Submission, he depicts a sentimentalist, a depressive, a cynic, a self-loather and most of all a fatalist. Houellebecq seems to not be a crusader against Mohamet, but a chronicler of our own slumber and societal depression, as he manages to complete his novel with the perfect combination of aestheticism and humour that one expects from a veteran writer. The translation by Lorin Stein, editor of the Paris Review, also wonderfully maintains its comic side.

François is a wisely chosen protagonist for Houellebecq’s novel. He is pitiful in his moral depravity as he sleeps with his students and pairs of prostitutes, and subsists on a troglodyte’s diet of Chinese takeaway and “gourmet” microwave dinners. The Catholic conversion of his “faithful friend”, Huysmans, is a foil for his own spiritual and human failings. He visits the Black Madonna statue of Rocadamour and thinks he has a mystical experience, only to dismiss it as the product of his hunger in the one of the author’s familiar comic twists. He acts as if intellectuals like himself are perfectly insulated from the world, and not responsible for its cycles. In one of the novel’s terrifying and absurd moments, François casually steps over the bloodied corpse of a petrol station attendant, to help himself to a sandwich, a non-alcoholic beer, and a Michelin guide to the region. Impressively, Houellebecq still manages to feed our sympathy for this man throughout the novel, showing us the parallels between our own insecurities and those of François. When François’s mistress, the Jewish student Myriam, emigrates to Israel, we find him despairing about this woman whom he did not quite love, but rather eased the loneliness of his cynicism and modern life.

After the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election, Islamic law is rapidly enacted. Women are veiled, polygamy encouraged, egalitarianism abandoned, and education is Islamised. The people of France are largely compliant. Men, particularly, are pleased with their increased power. The Jews have already left. Astonishingly, this Islamic French society seems stable and successful. François initially finds himself jobless because of his refusal to convert to Islam, but eventually comes to accept the new France, as the narrator eerily speculates about François converting to Islam, and taking up a young bride or two. According to Houellebecq, Islam can do for France what Catholicism no longer can.

Is this a realistic piece of speculative fiction? Only marginally. In the actual December 2015 French Regional elections, the Republican and Socialist parties conspired to prevent Front National from winning. But it is far-fetched that in the near future, a Muslim Brotherhood party could gain the support of mainstream parties, and not only win a landslide majority of the Muslim vote, but also the wider French vote. Therefore, it would be ludicrous to view an exposition of Islam’s threats as Submission’s central purpose. Furthermore, the novel is so relentlessly critical that it is futile to try to tie it down its allegiances. The reasonable conclusion, then, is that through its portrait of François, Submission points the finger at the quiescent, resigned masses of Western Nations. Most of us here at ANU have been living in industrialised, egalitarian, and democratic societies for our entire lives, so we easily find ourselves ambivalent and disinterested about each Hannibal at the gates, or even those inside our gates. François observes, “We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we lived well or badly, scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful, so, for that matter is the future. Only the present hurts.” Yet there is still beauty to be found in the present, and it is a beauty worth defending.

Ultimately, there are doubts as to whether a novel like Submission can have any effect on history. Houellebecq maintains that it cannot. I am pessimistic but undecided. Read the book and you can decide for yourself. You are sure to enjoy it.