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Book Review: Submission by Michel Houllebecq

If when reading Submission you’re expecting an apocalyptic tale of France under threat from Islam and the emergence of a new Crusader superman, then forget it. For Michel Houllebecq’s controversial novel of 2015 exists purely in the realm of thought. If it’s action you want, look elsewhere. Let’s put it this way: If this ever comes to the big screen, pity the poor sod charged with writing the screenplay.

In some ways this aspect of the novel – its inertia – is both a strength and a weakness. As a character, university lecturer and Huysmans enthusiast, Francois is an interesting if somewhat frustrating man, more so because he appears to be in the midst of a spiritual, physical and intellectual meltdown. That's an old fashioned mid-life crisis to you and I.

The psychological strand of the novel is realised well enough. It has to be, because effectively this is a book about one man’s state of mind - though at times Francois’ many philosophical meditations may try the patience of all but the most hardened-Houllebecq adherents. Understandably, the novel has thus met with mixed reviews. Yes, it’s short on action, but the actual submission of this novel concerns itself with the spiritual rather than the physical realm.

Indeed the actual rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood is dealt with thriftily at all times. It all sort of happens off stage, elsewhere – an aspect that will undoubtedly disappoint the more gung-ho inclined readers. As Francois himself is fond of saying: France falls without a single shot being fired, and so, by implication does Europe. Similarly, hardly a single sentence in this book describes a violent action or confrontation.

The lack of narrative pace though does allow the reader to appreciate the full extent of Francois’ very own dark night of the soul. As a symbol of post-modernist Europe, one where spirituality has not only been derided, but one where it has also been wilfully eroded, the libidinous lecturer is an all too believable archetype. Bereft of spirituality, belief or certitude, Francois is, like his home continent, an unanchored vessel floating in a meaningless broth of post-modernist nihilism and thus one peculiarly receptive to any kind of 'solution.'

In the protagonist’s uncomplicated conversion to Islam, Submission may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does manage to capture a certain zeitgeist. Francois chooses Islam because it offers something that he lacks: a sense of a greater agenda. It also offers him four wives. The price for European submission, suggests the author provocatively, might simply come down to what’s up for grabs: One wife or four?

In order to make the most out of this book then, it certainly needs to be read as a parable. Thus the character of Francois needs to be understood not as a unique individual, but rather in terms of a sketch of a certain frame of mind. As such the novel becomes much more palatable.

Take out the rather elongated passages about Huysmans and co. and Submission would certainly be an easier read, though not necessarily a better one. The preoccupation with philosophy - of how to be - is, after all, part of the problem here. In the final analysis this book is not about Islam or indeed Christianity, it’s actually about man’s place in the cosmos and for his need to ultimately find security within that order in whatever shape or form he can.

Perhaps the most chilling achievement of this book is its portrayal of the apathetic, feminised, virtually impotent Northern European male - a species clearly at the point of extinction. Heaven knows what your average Sven makes of it all. Or Wolfgang. Or John for that matter.

Left wing appeasement of Islam leading ultimately to a coalition in order to prevent right wing empowerment has all the power of prescience. Anyone witness to French election patterns will not fail to see the plausibility of such a scenario. Houllebecq's suggestion that such an alliance is quite natural and expedient to all concerned will come as no surprise to the more sophisticated observer.

Why this novel has received a generally negative reaction from the Muslim community is beyond me. As far as I can see, there aren't too many more persuasive recruiters to Islam than Submission. Then again for those able to read between the lines, and if read as a wake-up call to Europe, Submission really does become a truly chilling work.