I suspect that this book will go down in literary history not for its merits but for its eerie timeliness. It was published in French earlier this year, but the English translation was released just a few weeks before the ISIS attacks in Paris last year. French citizens and residents who know the larger context of Islam in France may not always pair the book with the incident as history moves forward, but I probably will. Before this book and that attack, I never thought much about troubles between Muslims and non-Muslims in France.
The protagonist of this book is François, a literature professor at a university in Paris. His specialty is the 19th-century French novelist J.K. Huysmans, and I am sorry to say that I don’t know enough about this novelist to comment on the connections between Huysmans and the novel as a whole (my hope is to change that soon). I did just enough research to know that Huysmans was known for having a difficult relationship with his own Catholicism, and that this difficult relationship echoes the religious conflicts of this novel.
François is one of those protagonists who is notable for his unwillingness to act, make decisions, or have a personality. He is the kind of protagonist Nick Carraway would have been if Gatsby had not been his next-door neighbor. Even more so, he is similar to Salim, the protagonist in Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. In Submission, we hear a lot about the routes François takes on his way home from work, the co-workers he has coffee with, and the frozen meals and take-out that he eats for dinner. We also learn about his various lukewarm affairs, usually with students, and with one affair in particular, with Myriam – and, most of all, we are with François when he realizes that fuck, he probably should have been paying more attention to politics.
My own education on French politics ended with the storming of the Bastille, so I have enjoyed learning that French presidential elections always culminate in runoffs, when the two most successful candidates in the original election go head-to-head. After one emerges the winner, the delegates from all the parties meet to put together the people who will actually conduct government – comparable to our presidential cabinet, I think. If a minority party received 35% of the vote in the runoff, then 35% of the cabinet posts will be filled with people from that party. This is how I understand it from the novel – which, of course, assumes that its readers already know how the system works. I could do research, of course, but you don’t really need to read me copying and pasting from Wikipedia, do you? I didn’t think so.
In the election in this novel, the two middle-of-the-road parties – the Socialist party and the somewhat-more-conservative or moderate party – that have dominated French politics in recent years are defeated by the more extreme parties: the National Front, about which I know something because I remember the hoopla when Jean-Marie Le Pen was elected in this party some years ago, and (drumroll) the Muslim Brotherhood.
This novel is set in 2022, so everything about the political world it depicts is speculative – though I am assuming that since the author chose to set the novel only a few years in the future the seeds of this situation have probably been planted for some time. I have read just over a third of the novel, and the runoff has not yet determined that the Muslim Brotherhood will win, though I know they will because otherwise Houellebecq would not be spending so much time directing François to track down all his friends who know about politics to tell him what to do (and also because the book jacket says so). François has a few acquaintances who know what’s what in the government, and these individuals advise François to do things like transfer his money to a non-French bank. They also warn him that his job may be at stake, since the Muslim Brotherhood does not believe in secular education and will likely mandate that all professors be Muslims.
As an American, I find all of this a little hard to swallow. I do know that democratic government is barely a blip on the radar screen of history, and I know that totalitarian regimes have come to power via democratic means. Everything Houellebecq outlines in this book is possible; but I have trouble with the idea of it happening so quickly – within weeks of an election, to hear the characters in this novel talk – and so abruptly. The French are known for dramatic regime change, God knows, but they were also well chastened by the years they spent as Patient Zero in Hitler’s quest for world domination, so I would think they would have built checks and balances into their system to prevent this for happening again. But I am far from an expert on this subject, so I intend to read and learn.
I will admit that the opening of this novel is not especially compelling. There really should be a rule against putting faculty meetings in novels. It took me a while to get invested in this book, but I’m invested now. I’ve read through the end of Part II – about 100 pages – and François has opened a foreign account and is having a lot of sex with Myriam, whose parents are moving to Israel in a panic and want her to go with them. I will be back next weekend to tell you more.