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Michel Houellebecq’s Submission Portrays a 21st Century French Revolution

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Submission, a novel by French author Michel Houellebecq that is newly available in English, tells the story of an Islamic political party overtaking France’s government at the ballot box and fundamentally changing society. It became an instant best seller in Europe when it was released on Jan. 7, the same day Muslim extremists murdered 12 people at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo. In the months since, an already tense Europe has dealt with a wave of migrants and refugees from Syria against a backdrop of fear of historic transformation. In the U.S., presidential candidate Ben Carson stated that no Muslim should be elected to the White House. Houellebecq is never easy reading, but on those grounds alone, Submission may be the most relevant book of the year.

Over the course of the novel, a fictional Muslim Brotherhood consolidates power in France by joining with the neutered Socialists in the 2022 elections, narrowly wresting control from Marine Le Pen (the right-wing politician, here rendered by Houellebecq as impassioned but ineffectual). The changes the new political party enacts seem to make life only more difficult in a nation that, in Houellebecq’s imagining, had already been teetering on the verge of collapse. Change occurs at a bizarre remove: from the forced veiling of women to the defunding of education to the encouragement of Jewish immigration to Israel, everyone more or less goes along.

Before the election, the book’s central character, a literature professor, reflects that his long-held hope of a calm life is now impossible, no matter which side wins: “There was no reason that I should be spared from grief, illness, or suffering. But until now I had always hoped to leave this world without undue violence.” It’s the sort of dream only someone raised in an industrialized nation in the latter half of the 20th century might have had. So much for that.

But Houellebecq stops short of portraying violence or even resistance; the book ends with the professor’s conversion to Islam, about which he feels little but a nihilistic comfort at having behaved in the socially correct manner. The lack of narrative fireworks is particularly jarring given Houellebecq’s résumé, which contains more instances of provocation than it does fiction. He was acquitted in 2002 after being charged with inciting racial hatred for calling Islam “the stupidest religion” and has referred to himself as “probably” Islamophobic.

Houellebecq’s restraint on the page, though, his schematic logic and bland refusal to indulge panic, seems somehow realer than real life. And Submission has less to do with religion than you might think. It examines rapid political change in general: How much of it are we meant to live through? And does it move inevitably toward extremes? If it weren’t the Muslim Brotherhood ruling France, after all, it would be Le Pen. She too is animated by beliefs that, if given purchase, would change the face of Europe.

Even those with concerns about Houellebecq’s subject can acknowledge the present moment’s potential for radical change, in one direction or another. At a moment in which American novelists seem wary of delving into politics, Houellebecq has clomped onto the world stage and delivered a book whose brash conceit is getting far more attention than its frightened heart. It’s not Muslims whom Houellebecq is scared of. It’s the future.


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