What If It Doesn’t Work Out Like That?
a review by Mark Gullick (October 2015)
No stronger retrograde force [than Islam] exists in the world.
- Winston Churchill, The River War
Islam is a religion of peace.
- David Cameron, from a statement following the beheading by Islamists of a British aid worker
If there was an obvious lesson to be learned by European novelists from their new Muslim Lord Chancellors after the Salman Rushdie affair, it was to be at the very least elliptical when dealing with the topic of Islam. After Rushdie’s unreadable tripe The Satanic Verses caused its furore in 1989, at least one novel has fallen still-born from the presses due to its dalliance with Mohammedan topics. The Jewel of the Medina, a sort of Islamic bodice-ripper due to be published in August 2008, and taking as its subject Aisha, one of Mohammed’s wives, was pulled when Random House’s Ballantine imprint got cold feet after objections from ‘Islamic scholars’. A year later, Sebastian Faulks made a grovelling apology after comments he made concerning the ‘depressing… one-dimensional’ Koran in the wake of his terrorism-themed novel A Week in December, repeating a gesture made by Martin Amis and Ian McKewan before him, who also recanted comments deemed unacceptable to the new guardians of cultural propriety. Literature and its authors now operate firmly within the shariah-compliant code of practice which reads; ‘Freedom of speech, but…’
by Michel Houellebecq
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 20, 2015)
On the subject of Islam, Michel Houellebecq (long in the tooth still to be called France’s novelistic enfant terrible) has transgressed before, referring to it as ‘the stupidest religion’, and opining that reading the Koran was ‘appalling’, comments which led to the usual pearl-clutching shrieks of liberal dismay as the magazine carrying the offending interview was sued by some of the many Muslim ‘organisations’ in France. In Houellebecq’s previous novels, Islam is a presence if never a theme, and critics were waiting to pounce on Submission. The wait may have been in vain.
Released in France as Soumission on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the book’s very title seemed mischievous. ‘Islam’ does not, as our political leaders bleat, mean ‘peace’, but something closer to ‘submission’, a central tenet of the Islamic faith. The submission practiced in Houellebecq’s near-future scenario, however, is not forced, but resignedly welcomed by the academic drifters who are the central characters.
Impatient reviewers have suggested that the entire book is set in a France under an Islamic government; it is not. The novel’s first section shows the rise to prominence of an Islamist party under France’s system of two-party run-offs. Marine Le Pen – currently in the dock again in the real world over comments made concerning the Islamic adhan, or call to prayer – is up against the charismatic Ben Abbes of the Muslim Fraternity. In a clever, understated novelistic twist, Abbes uses wily tribal skills to form key strategic alliances possible within the French electoral college, and comes to power. France is gradually Islamised, but instead of the raging caliphate predicted by many today on the dissident Right, the new regime proves more than agreeable to a jaded, dissolute Gallic republic.
The novel’s anti-hero is by now a stock Houellebecq figure. François is a middle-aged academic whose life’s work is the French novelist Huysmans. For the non-Francophone reader who may not know Huysmans, Houellebecq may well be playing on perhaps his most famous novel, À Rebours, usually translated into English as Against Nature. The question of what the natural state of Man might be gradually comes to light in Submission, and is one of its most successful sub-texts.
Graduality is, in fact, the strength of Submission. Beginning as it does with familiar Houellebecquian existential lassitude and sexual disgust and failure, the first moment of focus is when François sees some adolescent Salafist Muslims hanging around a lecture theatre at his university. The young, fit men appear, and the prose style shifts in a way reminiscent of Camus’s L’étranger. There, at the notorious point where Mersault goes back to the beach to shoot the Arab, the prose explodes into a display of kinetic verbs, used sparely throughout the rest of the book. Here, Houellebecq is not presenting Islam as a threat so much as a tonic, a much-needed effervescence.
One by one, the dominoes of an exhausted French culture fall, to be replaced by Islamic pillars. The university closes. When it reopens, it will be with an Islamic curriculum which, although it will permit non-Koranic studies, will have final arbitration. François is barred from all but secular universities and pensioned off. His old faculty buildings are decorated with Koranic verses and staffed by veiled secretaries. A married colleague talks of ‘getting another wife next month’. François laments the closing of the beautiful art deco Bar Metropole in Brussels, believing that ‘Europe had already committed suicide’.
But the popular bogeymen of Islamic repression are accompanied by other social phenomena which, even for ourselves, constitute the enigma of Islam. Crime drops – ‘[T]he Muslims can actually bring order to the banlieues’ - unemployment falls, the Conservative dream hoves into view as ‘the centrality, the dignity, of the family as the building block of society’ makes a reappearance impossible under Progressivist Liberalism, which has warred against the nuclear family since at least 1968.
Contemporary events constellating around the West’s Islamic problem are all present in Submission. There is the undercurrent of sectarian conflict within Islam itself we are seeing today, yet which is ignored by the media. There is the new Jewish diaspora, as François’s casual girlfriend Miryam’s parents fly back to Tel Aviv as Ben Abbes’s electoral prospects rise. ‘They’re not even waiting for the run-offs,’ she says. There is the paradox of Islamic Conservatism.
The structure of the novel does have a tendency to lapse into the didactic, as though a neo-classical dialogue had been pasted into place against a background of standard Houellebecqian existential nausea and bad sex, but it is the creeping set of François’s small epiphanies which is so disturbingly familiar for those of us living in our current interesting times:
‘When I went in to teach my class, I finally felt that something might happen, that the political system I’d grown up with, which had been showing cracks for so long, might suddenly explode.’
In the end, submission implies a prior revelation, the realisation that there is something to which it is necessary to submit, and revelation requires, as in the Bible, gnosis, or received knowledge leading to wisdom. François may be an expert on an obscure novelist, but he has failed to see that which has been right in front of him:
‘I had some idea that Islam prohibited drinking alcohol, at least that’s what I’d heard. To be honest, it wasn’t a religion I knew much about.’
This innocuous statement, coming late in the book as it does, encapsulates the danger of Islam; it isn’t really a religion the West knows much about. Those of us who have made a study of Islam are often observed disapprovingly, and are certainly discouraged from wandering off piste. Islam says to the West; you will learn the Islam we desire you to learn. We will teach you the rest ourselves at a later date, when it is too late for you and, as a young antagonist in Jean Raspail’s Camp of the Saints proclaims, all your things lose their meaning. This difference between prescribed and proscribed Islam is exemplified close to me in London, where the Muslim shops in Whitechapel have come-hither exotic Islamic paraphernalia in the window to entice the cultural shopper, although non-Muslims are not encouraged to go into the depths of the shop, where the shelves are stocked with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and various other texts proclaiming Jews to be directly related to pigs and apes.
I am not, personally, wild about Houllebecq’s novels, although I am always pleased to have read one. One settles into their rhythms and cadences as though each were an uncomfortable take on a comfortable genre movie – a dystopian Western, maybe - and perhaps the worthwhile aspect of the novels is that no one else is writing like this. Far more entertaining than the novels, in my view, is Public Enemies, a wonderful epistolary correspondence between Houellebecq and flamboyant philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy which is far more amiable than the title suggests, and – for the lover of H P Lovecraft’s neurasthenic horror stories – Houellebecq’s extended essay H P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.
Whether or not Submission is a prescient novel is not, of course, in the gift of the present to know. Those Progressivists eager to dismember Houellebecq will be strangely disappointed with the book’s lack of animus against Islam, while those who fear the worst will be reminded of a passage from Mark Steyn’s near-decade-old America Alone, in which the Canadian journalist muses on an Islamic future for Europe:
‘Perhaps the differences will be minimal. In France, the Catholic churches will become mosques; in England, the village pubs will cease serving alcohol; in the Netherlands, the gay nightclubs will close up shop and relocate to San Francisco. But otherwise life will go on much as before. The new Europeans will be observant Muslims instead of post-Christian secularists but they will still be recognizably European: It will be like Cats after a cast change: same long-running show, new actors.’
Of course, as with every counter-factual, there remains the possibility that it has a counter-factual of its own. Steyn’s coda to the above may well stand as an epigraph to Houellebecq’s Submission;
‘But what if it doesn’t work out like that?’
Mark Gullick has a PhD in philosophy and lives and works in London, England. Visit his weblog: Postcards from Traumaville. His latest book is Bestest Boys and can be purchased here for e-readers for 99p/$0.99.
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