Michel Houellebecq: Martyr or Madman?

Art & Lit Culture Literature

This provocative, controversial book, follows the life and academic career of Francois in a dystopian France crackling with political change. As a tragically immoral and lonely university lecturer living in Paris, his life is altered when the fictional Muslim Brotherhood Party wins the national election. His girlfriend, Jewish, flees the country in fear and he loses his job at the university. Women, who are no longer allowed to work, must wear a head-scarf, polygamy is legalised, indeed encouraged, and education is ended at the age of twelve.

So, what next, should he submit, convert to Islam and get his job back? First, Francois must go on a pilgrimage to the monastery of Martel and reconnect with the glory days of his academic past and his dedication to writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. He travels through what is, in essence, a country deeply divided, becoming desensitised to the horrors that occur as a result, such as the murdered bodies he encounters along the way. Unmoved by his failed spiritual reconciliation, he returns to Paris – but not to his previous life of prostitutes and microwave meals – and is convinced by a colleague to convert to Islam in exchange for his job back, a huge raise, and at least three child brides. Our protagonist accepts.

What should we think of this instant best-seller, is it simply shameless islamophobia or is there a hidden theme we should be looking at? Such a politically-loaded topic is bound to be reactionary but I would argue that there is method in this madness. The subject matter is painfully current and polarising that such a scandalous book will elicit a reaction from everyone; it appears as though this is Houellebecq’s intention.

Houellebecq himself does not give us any reason to believe that his book is anything except offensive and hateful.

He wants us to be shocked and outraged by his ridiculously hyperbolic xenophobia, communicated through the highly surreal book and forcing us to acknowledge the Islamophobia that surrounds us. It seems that he is presenting us with this work to be branded as a racist by those who read it too superficially. The offensive nature of the book is intended to teach us a lesson. That is why the book falls under the category of ‘tragi-comedy’; to take it totally seriously would be incorrect. The book is satirical and appears to mocks those who suffer from ignorant racism.

However, this is perhaps an overly-hopeful analysis of the book. We must consider the other option; Houellebecq himself does not give us any reason to believe that his book is anything except offensive and hateful. ‘I can’t say that the book is a provocation — if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves. I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic,’ he says. Submission was released, coincidentally, on the same day as the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack – morbid advertisement and fuel for his new book.

Houellebecq is followed by police protection around the clock, due to the outrage his book caused and comments such as ‘am I Islamophobic? Probably, yes.’ We see a man, totally unapologetic in his conviction. However, there remains the possibility that he is sacrificing himself, committing fully to this role of ‘Islamophobe,’ in order to deter his readers from it. Maybe he is submitting himself to hatred, so that we, the readers, may learn. I’d say the best way to find out is to take a look at this enticingly readable book and decide for yourself.

Image credit: Fronteiras do Pensamento [CC BY-SA 2.0]