November 21, 2016

It shocked the world in 2015 when Submission was published. With the horrible assaults in Paris in the recent past, the free press punished to the bone, the book came as a dystopian answer, mocking the fear of many Frenchmen to be able to continue to live the life they used to live and loved.

Since my rusty French disables reading the original, I waited for an English translation, fed by my admiration for Houellebecq who can’t stand his own fame but keeps on producing brilliant books that become more political and visionary. Compared to Orwell and Céline, I admire the nostalgic nature of self-loathing and the eloquence of his attempts to overcome (t)his horrible condition humane. Laying the Western morals bare, pointing out through irony and, it this case, satire, that we, not only as individuals but also as a group, lack responsibility and suffer from a diminishing capability of empathy. The void of this feeling makes us extremely vulnerable, otherness then can seep in as an alien force.

Despite my desire for the book, I forgot about the translation release date, until I recently ran into a copy of Submission in one of my local bookstores. Oui! Assuming most people have read it, I felt a bit behind, but maybe it is the kind of book people claim to have read instead of actually doing so.

There are several British translations, the one I read is by Lori Stein, well-praised for her ‘fluent translation’, according to the positive blurb on the back side of the book. Indeed, it’s an easy read, despite the abundance of academic references, not a very surprising fact since the protagonist is a famous college professor. He who converts to the Islam since a revolutionary coupe by a charismatic Muslim leader requires all schools to hire Muslim staff and fire the secular ones who isn’t a believer. This creates tragic comic situations, some are rehired, others disappear in the voids of a grey, meaningless existence. At least, this fate is strongly suggested.

Houellebecq admits in his Acknowledgements not to be an academic nor does he know anything about life at an university. He does this in the funniest way by thanking a ‘maître de conferences’ at the University of Paris X-Nanterre. I mean, having attended university myself, I find Houellebecq’s depressed college professor, his story set in 2022, with a radicalized France at its dystopian center, quite convincing.

The premise of this science fiction satire is based on the fear of many Western Europeans to wake up soon in a world that changed into an extremely polarized, apparently overnight. (Not true, Trump would say.) In Houellebecq’s case, this France is governed by a Muslim leader, charismatic and pretty street-smart and wise. With the results of the American election still bleeding in our memory, this book is a chilling read. But now I may sound like a second rate book reviewer who doesn’t have the time nor the motivation to write something proper.

But what kind of read is Submission then? I asked around in my own circle of friends, and received some far from enthusiastic reactions from the women. It is common knowledge, I assume, that Houellebecq has a highly misogynic take on mankind, not women per se. His protagonists often are entangled in complex psychological war games, trapped in loneliness, seeking refuge in other social systems, to survive. And in this case, women in veils are handed to men who manage to land a job at the Sorbonne in the weird fictional world of Submission. A man’s fantasy to have more wives, a same-aged one for cooking, another one for conversation, and the preteen for sex. Critics have accused Michel Houellebecq of cutting the Islam back into a few elements that suit his story. That is the privilege of a writer, but I have to say, it bothered me too. Bad at relationships, the raconteur of this story explains why, when he visits his fathers girlfriend, widowed and lonely: ‘It was becoming more and more obvious to me that I would never understand women. Here was a normal woman – almost cartoonishly normal, and yet she’d seen something in my father, something my mother and I never saw.’

When you shove aside the political context of the book, which seems to be the driving force behind the plot, Submission tells a story about a man looking for love, new ideals to believe in, and guidance, but if this is true, the majority of narratives, published for over the last decade, can be reduced to ‘just’ that. Well, then I would rather say this: Submission tries to expose the struggle of secular men and women, when they would fall into powerful new hands, with structure, love, balance and discipline as their selling point. A tempting prospect for many people unable to find love, and jobs, the natural way, whatever that is these days.