Submission by Michel Houellebecq is a fictional novel that foresees the inevitable submission of France to Islam by 2022. The instrument through which France submits is the political party, the Muslim Brotherhood. I was initially interested in reading Michel Houellebecq because his name kept being mentioned in the online spheres I frequent. This also seemed like the right book of his to start with. Fascinatingly enough, the book was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, which makes you wonder if the book's contents aren't too far from reality.
The plot tracks the daily life of the protagonist François, who is an apathetic but respected literature professor from Paris, France. He specialises in the works of Joris-Karl Huysmans, a 19th century French novelist. He has a career of real intellectual achievements and is well-known and respected. Despite this, he finds himself burned out and lost in life.
After a string of casual flings between François and his students, a previous Jewish girlfriend of his, Myriam, and him get together many times throughout the first half of the book, for sterile, casual, sexual encounters, and don't end up staying together. Myriam’s close-knit family is unlike anything François has ever known, and Myriam and her family are a great example of what happens to Jews when you import Muslims into European countries.
In the background, there is an identitarian/nativist vs Islamic struggle for political power being waged between the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, and the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Ben-Abbes. Despite their great differences, both are in perfect agreement about rejecting atheism and humanism, and the necessity of women to be submissive and reinstating the patriarchy and gender roles. The French supporters of the National Front want an ethnic identity, but also desire spiritual discipline. Catholicism has all but died in France, and the National Front are fighting to revive it, lest Islam replaces it. This struggle for political power comes to a tipping point when a full-blown civil war breaks out. Of course, the academics are totally unconcerned throughout most of the story, until they are forced to convert to Islam.
The National Front don't have any personhood throughout the book, as they are mere background characters without concrete ideals. Despite this, they still use harsh rhetoric and push for insurrection; at one of their rallies, it is reported that between a few hundred thousand and two million people attended. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, who are calm and collected, and adopt a caring, parental role, who promises to fix the problems that France is facing in the modern era. The contrast between the Muslim Brotherhood, with its sober and ascetic behaviour, is obvious when compared to the liberal and decadent worldview of the apathetic French people, the academics and Myriam; which is reminiscent of the Weimar Republic in Germany before the NSDAP took power. Neither Myriam or François really love France, as their love is superficial and equivalent to the 'I love the flag' types of patriots, who don't want to protect their national heritage, traditions or ethnicity.
Peppered throughout the story, are instances of over-sexualised and vulgar sex scenes, to what felt like an unnecessary degree. However, it's not until the second half of the book that the reader understands why this rhetoric and these sex scenes were so heavily employed. With references to YouPorn, and repeated usage of crude and lowbrow phraseology, which I'm not sure if it's just how Houellebecq writes, or if it's unique to Submission, such as "suck me off," and commentary on how François's penis has never caused him any pain, only pleasure, I could not help but think that all of this, and the mention of his penis being the main reason he socialises, is a brilliantly subtle commentary on modern dating. After Myriam comes over and is dressed like a prostitute for this sterile, casual sexual encounter, it clicked why he writes so sexually—Islam is the exact opposite of this behaviour, typical of liberal democracies, and the Muslim Brotherhood is on a mission to cleanse France of this disease, and fixing the problems French society is facing. The book gives the example of Bruno and Annelise, who François knows through his academic career. Their marriage flipped upside down, where the gender roles are reversed. They are both getting older and uglier with their "sagging of the flesh", Annelise comes home from work, usually at 9pm, and gets drunk, leaving Bruno to take care of the kids.
When a relationship is only focused on sex, you get the chaotic situation that François and Myriam had. They embrace the sensual and sterile lifestyle that is now the hallmark of technological-industrial societies, where getting married and having children isn't a concern. They instead choose to drift through life abusing illicit substances, alcohol and chasing sexual pleasure for fleeting moments of 'happiness'. Whereas the National Front are idealistic and determined to win France back. Eventually, the patriarchal, fertile and masculine Muslim Brotherhood prove to be too strong of a fighting force to oppose, and France capitulates entirely to their will. The Socialist Party on the other hand, who form a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood, are essentially a non-actor throughout the book, with a weak and ineffectual willpower. The chaos in the lives of the average French person’s personal life is the context behind the political crisis; France is liberal and chaotic, and Islam is strict and orderly. This is a magnificent social commentary on the sexed-up culture in Western countries and its continual absurdity. The book does this by going to the nth degree to make it sync in; at first you think you’re reading a book about France’s submission to Islam, but gradually the story mixes in a bit of 50 Shades of Grey. Then the sexual content makes sense.
Chinatown is viewed as the only safe part of Paris, but just as François is escaping to Martel, the civil war becomes too chaotic and it spreads from Paris to the rest of France. While in Martel, François spends most of his time offline and disconnected from all current events, which further demonstrates the pathetic apathy of academics to issues of nationhood. During this time, his mother dies without him knowing, followed by his father later on. As the power of the Muslim Brotherhood increases, the Islamic regime doesn't appear scary to the average person, as France had been strongly Catholic before, with only subtle differences, like Halal menu options. Ben-Abbes, being a moderate Muslim and enemy of Saudi Arabia, has a vision of a new Roman Empire, and with the addition of the Arab territories, hopes that the linguistic balance of Europe will tilt towards French. He manages to reduce crime by 90%, reduces unemployment, supports small businesses through distributist economics and establishes sweeping social changes like ending co-education, allowing polygamy and offering large subsidies for families. The monopolies in certain industries are crushed and farmers and craftsmen grow their market share. Ben-Abbes surprisingly relaunches nuclear energy in France and begins funding research into electric cars with the aim of independence from Saudi oil. He isn't concerned about micromanaging the economy, as his primary concerns are education and birth rates, which I find to be commendable. Sociologist Daniel Da Silva argues that marriage should be based on reason and family ties; changing from love to practical knowledge and inheritance from father to son. Furthermore, that a salaried workforce dooms the nuclear family and leads to atomisation, and it is therefore necessary to rebuild society based on a small business model structure.
François retires for a good paycheck after his time away from Paris and notices how much the University has changed, with all the secretaries wearing veils, the star and crescent moon of Islam above all the doors, and handwritten Koran verses on posters everywhere. During this, François thinks about how nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics or happy memories; we only feel nostalgic for places simply because we have lived there. The past is always beautiful, and so is the future, it’s only the present that hurts because we carry it around like an abscess of suffering. One night after scratching his infected toes, he comes to realise he doesn't have more reason to commit suicide than those around him, as he has real intellectual achievements, is widely known and respected, and has a generous income that's twice the national average, but still, he is lost and suicidal.
Despite the apparent order Ben-Abbes brings to France, liberal sexual values still flourish with the rising popularity of North African escorts, many of which start at age 18, and dating websites like Meetic. Devoid of pleasure and any meaningful connection, he ponders whether he should just commit suicide, because the relationships between the escorts and him are only sterile jaunts of exciting the senses. Ben-Abbes introduces female matchmakers who see all single girls naked to conduct an evaluation, before matching the girls' physical appearance to the social status of their future husband. François is now closer than ever to suicide, as he experiences a "degradation of the set of functions that resist death". The mere will to live was clearly no match for the pains and aggravations that punctuate the life of the average Western man in Submission; like having no one else to live for. As the Islamic regime pushes women’s fashion towards decency and modesty, François’s sexual impulses gradually diminish.
François notices his mental state is deteriorating, and visits the Liguge Abbey Catholic monastery in hopes of experiencing a spiritual awakening. After a short period there, he forgets the purpose of his visit and returns home the same. Upon his arrival in Paris, he is offered to work for the catalogue 'Pléiade' to edit Huysmans' work, which he accepts. In a meeting with Professor Rediger, a recent convert who has a 15-year-old wife, he is offered to also start teaching at the Sorbonne after the work on the catalogue is finished. They have a discussion about philosophy and religion, and François is given a book by Professor Rediger about Islam. Persuaded by the arguments Professor Rediger has offered in favour of Islam, he ponders his conversion. It seems to him that converting to Islam would make the rest of François’ life bright and fulfilling. Poised to convert to Islam, the conversion ceremony itself would be simple and take place at the Paris mosque. Each of the girls that François could choose as his wives would be proud and honoured to be chosen, and to share his bed with them. He feels they would be worthy of love and he would come to love them. Conversion means he would be given a new lease of life with no connection to the old one, and he would have nothing to mourn. The willingness to convert to Islam is a total negation of their inner truths as French people; the Muslim Brotherhood was just too strong for any other political party in France to compete with.
At various stages in the book, Houellebecq appears to be trying too hard to be shocking with his rhetoric, which loses its grip on the reader. He is actively trying to 'redpill' the reader by instead inserting his own rhetoric. He does this when he is critiquing Christianity in the conversations between François and Professor Rediger, instead of it flowing naturally and him realising this on his own. There are also long passages where nothing indicates that François is reading anything, Houellebecq is just pasting in his own exhaustive rhetoric, instead of telling a story. The tragedy and nihilism of Submission feels like an angsty teenager complaining about their life with an obvious emptiness, derived from shallow philosophy. At times it bounces between being a hopeless loner, and sophisticated discussions of contemporary right-wing anti-Islamic politics, which doesn't synthesise well into a narrative. This oscillation feels like you're flicking between Google Chrome tabs of an angsty teenage girl's Tumblr account and an article from The Daily Stormer.
Submission isn't shocking for me to read as I have followed European geopolitics intently and have been desensitised to the dreadful issues they are facing, as are we in Australia. It feels more like a diary than a prophecy of the future. Moreover, I know the facts and debate arguments about multiculturalism and Islam, but to an apolitical layman, this will be a shocking book to read. I appreciated what Houellebecq was trying to do with this story, and I recommend this book for anyone who hasn't been paying close attention to European geopolitics over the past few years, as it forecasts with unflinching detail what life could look like for Europeans under an Islamic regime. I don't recommend teenagers to read this book, due to the explicitly sexual nature of portions of this book. Overall, the book is a quick and easy read, and doesn't take too much political know-how to understand. Submission offers a striking social commentary about what we should regard as sacred, and what is foreign to us as European peoples.