Michel Houellebecq ‘Submission’

I was hungry and what’s more I felt like shopping for something to eat, a blanquette de veau, hake cooked with cervil, a berbère moussaka; meals for the micro-wave, reliable in their insipidness, but with  colorful  packaging…not ill intended and the feeling to be taking part in a deceptive collective, yet egalitarian experience.***

In this book from 2016 by Houellebecq, in a near future the narrator, a bored university lecturer at Paris-Sorbonne, in between having affairs with his students is watching his life drift past, as it would seem is the whole country, in passive dissatisfaction. A perfect idea of his character is given by the opening quote.

Houellebecq picked up well on the mood of the nation with regard to the existing political landscape as was confirmed afterwards by the election of Emmanuel Macron, as  the narrator introduces us to election night:

I’ve always liked presidential election evenings; I even think that with the exception of football world cups, they were my favorite television programs. There is obviously less suspense, elections obeying to the singular narrative disposition of a story whose outcome is known from the first minute.***

But in this election night Houellebecq puts the Muslim brotherhood, a little like Hitler in his time, in a position of force to form a coalition government with the socialists. And as the book goes on he imagines the changes this could bring about, accepted apathetically by the electorate. Let us take the narrators profession as one of the examples he presents:

The republican school system stays as is. Open to everyone – but with much less money, the education budget will be divided by three at least, and this time the teachers won’t be able to save anything, in the curant economic climate any budget cuts will be certain to obtain large approval. And in parallel a system of private muslim schools will be put in place. Obviously in next to no time public schooling will equal low cost schooling.***

Houellebecq as other authors in dystopian novels plays on the readers fears as the narrator loses his job because his university becomes the Islamic university of Paris-Sorbonne and he is not Muslim (but no panic, the university is payed for by the Saudis and he is well paid off). He plays on arrangements to make polygamous mariages legal as the narrator’s colleagues become Muslim to keep their jobs, at three times the pay level, including wives found for them by the administration and  he imagines changes to our shopping centres:

Inside the shopping centre, things were more nuanced. Bricorama (DIY) was uncontested, but Jennifer (adolescent clothes) certainly wouldn’t last long, they sold nothing that would suit an islamic teenager. Secret Stories  on the other hand, that sold cut price branded underwear, had nothing to worry about: the success of similar shops in merchant galleries in Riyad and Abu Dhabi was incontestable…..dressed in impenetrable black burkas during the daytime, when the evening comes rich Saudi women are transformed into birds of paradise.***

This book was well received by the critics I, however, was uncomfortable with it, I found it quite simply plays on readers prejudices, and wouldn’t recommend it, look elsewhere for dystopian futures and imagine, maybe optimistically, that populations everywhere take an active interest in the way their countries are governed.

First Published in French as “Soumission” in 2015 by Flammarion
Translated into English as “Submission” by Lorin Stein and published in 2016 by Vintage
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

J’avais faim et plus encore j’avais envie d’acheter à manger, de la blanquette de veau, du colin au cerfeuil, de la moussaka berbère; les plats pour micro-ondes, fiables dans leur insipidité, mais à l’emballage coloré et joyeux… aucune malveillance ne pouvait s’y lire, et l’impression de participer à une expérience collective décevante, mais égalitaire.

J’aimais depuis toujours les soirées d’élections présidentielle; je crois même qu’a l’exception des coupes de mondes de football, c’était mon programme télévisé favori. le suspense était évidemment moins fort, les élections obéissant à ce dispositif narratif singulier d’une histoire dont le dénouement est connu dès la première minute.

l’école républicaine demeurerait telle quelle, ouverte à tous – mais avec beaucoup moins d’argent, le budget de l’Education nationale sera au moins divisé par trois, et cette fois les profs ne pourront rien sauver, dans le contexte économique actuel toute réduction budgétaire sera certaine de rallier un large consensus. et puis parallèlement se mettrait en place un système d’école musulmanes privées. Evidemment, très vite, l’école publique deviendra une école au rabais.

A l’intérieure du centre, le bilan était plus contrasté. Bricorama était incontestable, mais les jours de Jennifer était sans nul doute comptés, ils ne proposaient rien qui puisse convenir à une adolescente islamique. Le magasin Secret Stories par conte, qui vendait de la lingerie de marque à des prix dégriffés, n’avait aucun souci à se faire: le succès des magasins analogues dans les galeries marchandes de Riyad et d’Abu Dhabi ne s’était pas démenti….Vétues pendant la journée d’impénétrables burqas noires, les riches Saoudiennes se transformaient le soir en oiseaux de paradis.

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