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By coincidence, I finished reading Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Soumission, just a few days before Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, was elected Mayor of London. In the novel, another Muslim, Mohammed Ben-Abbes, is elected President of France.
The circumstances of the 2022 presidential election, as Houellebecq imagines them, are that the Socialist Party forms an electoral pact with the Muslim Brotherhood Party in order to defeat the National Front led by Marine le Pen. The immediate consequences of Ben-Abbes’s victory include the privatisation of the Sorbonne as an Islamic institution, generously funded by Arab states, and the legalisation of polygamy. Entertaining though it might be, there would be little point in trying to read across from the fictional election in France to the real one in London. Houellebecq’s novel is less about politics than about human nature.
His narrator, François, is a 44 year old lecturer at the Sorbonne who divides his time between studying the works of the nineteenth century French novelist, J.K.Huysmans, and having affairs with first-year female students. He freely admits his lack of interest in anything outside those two subjects and, especially, his ignorance of history and politics. He is, in other words, a representation of French masculinity with which we are already familiar, especially, but not exclusively, through the novels of Michel Houellebecq.
François is no different from any of the other men in the novel, whether they be colleagues, husbands of colleagues, academics or politicians. To be cynical, self-interested and amoral is, as Houellebecq sees the world, or at least the modern French world, normal. In the brief period of chaos which follows the election, François leaves Paris in his car and drives from place to place, staying in hotels or with friends. Stopping for petrol on the first day of his journey, he comes across the scene of a recent shooting and, with apparent lack of feeling, steps over the dead bodies. He reacts in much the same way when he receives the news of the death from natural causes of first one parent, then the other. When he visits his late father’s second wife, they spend a pleasant evening together, eating, drinking and talking. He is relieved to find that she does not intend to make any difficulty about his inheritance.
His Jewish girlfriend’s decision to follow her parents to Israel, fearing an increase in anti-semitism after the election of Ben-Abbes, is something he regrets, but he misses her less than he misses having sex with her. Losing his job when the Sorbonne closes its doors to non-Muslims has two consequences, one bad, one good. He loses access to first-year female students, but he gains a generous pension. This means that he can afford to replace Myriam with expensive prostitutes. He makes extensive use of online pornography too. Houellebecq’s descriptions of sex are well written and pornographic. He writes well about food and wine in much the same way, that is by concentrating on the facts and leaving nothing out.
François makes frequent digressions on the subject of Huysmans, as any academic would who had a genuine interest in his subject. To a reader who does not share that interest, which must be most readers, this is rather like listening to an enthusiastic train-spotter. The effect is partly to lend credibility to the character of the narrator, who is made thereby to seem more real and less like a novelist. But it is also to put politics in its place. Most people, François included, couldn’t care less about politics. They just want to be left to carry on doing what they enjoy doing, whether that’s eating, drinking, having sex with young women or reading Huysmans.
That being so, the politicians under Ben-Abbes are left to get on with it and, after some initial unrest, seem to do so in a way which meets general approval. The first thing François notices when he returns to Paris is that all women, including non-Muslims, dress modestly. It is the first sign of the submission which gives the novel its title and which, as submission to God, is fundamental to Islam and at odds with the secular individualism which is fundamental to the French constitution. No one, as far as François can tell, is protesting. His own disinterest prevents him from inquiring more closely. Houellebecq seems to be saying that laïcité rests on much flimsier foundations than Islam.
The closest thing to a moral dilemma in Soumission comes at the end, when the new head of the Sorbonne offers to give François his job back. The only condition is that, like everyone else employed at the university, he must convert to Islam. Among the incentives are a very generous salary, a very light work-load and being eligible for up to four wives, some as young as fourteen. He is tempted.
The new President’s project, François realises, is to extend the Islamic world on the model of the Roman Empire, not by the subjugation of peoples, but by their submission. The charming and urbane Mohammed Ben-Abbes had no difficulty in persuading Hollande, Beyrou and the rest to join him in his project. Between subjection to the hard right and submission to Islam there was nothing to choose.
Houellebecq’s novel sheds light on many aspects of contemporary life, in France and elsewhere, but it is not 1984. François is not Winston Smith. He is rather what Winston Smith became. There is no need to terrify François with rats, his submission is much more easily won. Soumission gives Londoners no cause to worry about their new mayor, only about themselves.