This novel has been the victim of bad timing — twice. On the day of its release, the Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred in Paris and a mere few weeks after its English translation release, the recent attack occurred. When the novel was first released it was said to be “alarmist” but after reading it, I don’t see it that way.
The basic plot is about a university professor, François, well known for his lifelong study of the ideas of the French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, who finds his own life running a remarkably similar course. Huysmans was a man prone to decadence who eventually turned to Catholicism later in life. François is unmarried, middle aged, unable to maintain a long term or healthy relationship with women, and also finds himself living a somewhat decadent yet still lonely life. We are privy to his dysfunctional relationships with women and his friendships with his fellow academics, many of whom he doesn’t have a good word about. He’s basically drifting, having a middle-aged existential crisis about his own life and work which he concluded had ultimately led to nothing. Late Capitalist society, with all it’s perceived decadence and selfishness, has essentially left François spiritually empty — and in his mind, his fellow countrymen who care more for the latest fashions, consumer goods and trends than they do about anything else.
The year is 2022. Normally this kind of dystopian tale would take place far in the future but Houellebecq has something else in mind entirely. The political situation in France is volatile and the upcoming presidential elections pits two parties against one another: Marie Le Pen’s far right National Front and a surprising newcomer, Muhammad Ben Abbes of the Muslim Brotherhood (a fictional party not related to the actual Muslim Brotherhood). Ben Abbes is a young, charismatic young politician who has the ability to woo both the far right due to his perceived “strength” and those on the left due to his insistence on “inclusiveness” for all. The election is close and there is a run-off, and Ben Abbes is eventually elected due to his ability to form a coalition with the left.
Virtually overnight the country is transformed: The university that François works at immediately becomes an “Islamic University” (with its professors let go unless they agree to convert to Islam), polygamy is encouraged and women begin wearing the veil. One would expect all the brutality that comes with an “Islamic Regime” but, as I said, Houellebecq has something entirely different in mind here. Instead of envisioning a totalitarian society, he envisions a European society as spiritually bankrupt as himself, with everyone turning to religion to fill the hole. Willingly, French society “submits”, most converting to Islam to fill that hole, finding Christianity, Judaism, Capitalism, Consumerism having failed to give their lives any meaning whatsoever. The academics (of whom Houellebecq focuses on) merely convert in order to increase their status in life and, of course, be able to take more than one wife, some as young as 15 years old.
It’s Houellebecq’s classic cynicism that takes the reigns here and the novel seems, to me, to be more of a critique of the emptiness of Western values and how, over centuries, has failed to give anyone spiritual fulfillment, so much so that he envisions a society willingly submitting to the new order as a way to find happiness in their lives, a submission he sees as almost inevitable. It is much less a critique of Islam than it is of his own Western values (although, between the lines, Islam is not exactly ‘the answer’ either, merely another vehicle in which a lost and empty society embraces in order to find spiritual fulfillment).
Like all Houellebecq novels, there are a lot of ideas to think about. The novel is clearly a satire but it is also very current. He raises a lot of questions about the current state of 21st Century Western values and European society, though his conclusions are as cynical as ever. Definitely recommended.
Translated by Lorin Stein