Monday, 18 January 2016
In short, the year is 2020 and to defeat Marine LePen and her Front National party in the presidential elections, the Socialist Party throws its support behind the French Muslim party. The charismatic "moderate Muslim" Mohammed Ben Abbas becomes the president and all non-Muslim (and women) professors at the Sorbonne are dismissed from their posts, albeit with a darned good pension, thanks to our friends the Saudis.
Soumission does not condemn Islam or Islamism as much as it tears the skin off contemporary, secularist, left-wing, sex-obsessed French academia. Houllebecq's protagonist François, a strangely sympathetic anti-hero, is a depressed professor of French Literature at the Sorbonne (in his case, Paris III), who feels his best days ended when his seven-year doctoral study of Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans, a 19th century French novelist who converted to Catholicism, was completed.
To his surprise, he was one of the chosen few students given a university post after graduation, but the privilege doesn't prevent the growing banality of his existence. An only child, he hasn't seen either of his divorced parents in years, he has no friends, and and he is obsessed with sex, which he has with a revolving door of young women (usually students) who dump him when they "have met someone else." He loves to eat,and describes what he eats in loving detail, but it is almost always foreign: microwavable Indian or Arab or Turkish delicacies. It is only when women (and he) are about to be fired from the Sorbonne that he gets a decent French meal, cooked lovingly by a Frenchwoman. The connection between his French hostess losing her academic post and her cooking him splendid French food is not lost on the reader.
The protagonist struggles to find meaning in his life, and even gives Catholicism a go. The Catholic reader, while probably wanting to skip the passages describing his sexual encounters, which are detailed, may be charmed by the good showing French Catholics get in this novel. The Catholic young are described as typically having "open, friendly" faces. Catholic monks are depicted as being young or middle-aged, happy, tranquil, friendly and compassionate. Meanwhile, the protagonist's inability to appreciate monastic life is well in keeping with Catholics know of virtue ethics. Grace is a free gift, and Houllebecq's protagonist has not exactly asked for it or made himself capable of receiving it. (Is Houllebecq a Catholic? Despite the anatomically detailed sex scenes, this well may be a "Catholic novel.")
Of course, Catholics may be taken aback at how many Catholics, and how many French "nativists" (French who want France to stay French), have converted to Islam in this projected France of 2020. Still, at least Catholics are the one non-Islamic group the Islamists respect, even as they sincerely hope to convert them. (The Jews, of course, know they are toast, so they flee to Israel.)
Bizarrely the Catholic reader may even see the silver lining in the cloud of Islamic domination: women are paid a handsome salary if they leave work and take care of their children instead, small businesses are encouraged and fostered, unemployment for men is at zero, the Muslim president is, and always has been, a fan of Chestertonian Distributivism, the protagonist stops thinking about sex all the time because he never sees naked female legs in public: in the shopping walls all women are wearing trousers paired with a long tunic. And certainly the Muslim way of life (for a man of privilege and pension) seems better than the protagonist's isolation, drinking, eating microwaved instant Indian dishes, visiting whores....
For there are rewards for high-status Frenchmen (like Paris University intellectuals) who convert, rewards a man obsessed with sex and delighted by home-cooking can appreciate. Will the protagonist succumb to temptation and submit?
One thing to remember about this novel is it is written entirely from the point of view of a selfish man who is unable to love his own mother, let alone anyone else. He is interested in women, but only in how they please or displease him. He is surprised when he discovers that his clever older woman colleague is married, for it blows his mind that anyone could ever have desired her frog-like self, and he misses the presence of women at faculty meetings because he finds men standing around trying to talk about anything that is not football awkward and boring.
Therefore, we do not see--and are not meant to see--what is happening to anyone who is not a prestigious male French scholar in this revolutionary Islamic France. The only Jew in the story has left, all the women seem happy with their new lot, the monks are completely untroubled by the regime change and--bizarrely--once the election is over, there are no insurrections. No rebellions. My goodness. In Krakow, in real life, if a migrant mob said Boo, the local men would pour into the streets with baseball bats--or so a well-educated Krakow native told me in a Krakow business in Krakow.
However, one has to admit that white Frenchmen seem very unlikely to be moved to vigilantism--or to insurrection against a Muslim government--in Paris, where the response to the most outrageous anti-European violence is to lay flowers on the pavement and play "Imagine" on a piano in the street.
Houllebecq anticipated the request in the title and wrote a novel that imagines what France will be like in 2020 if the situation in Europe continues as it does--for the lefty French male scholar, that is. There is absolutely no hint of the sexual violence meted out to women in the so-called Muslim world, which apparently now includes Cologne.
Update: The British Prime Minister tries to get rid of purdah in the UK, hoping that once all Muslim women are freed, they will have the power to combat extremism.