Soumission (Submission) by Michel Houellebecq, 2015. Read in French. Glossy's rating: 3.5/10.
In this novel Houellebecq tries to imagine how France's conversion to Islam might go down. He has an Islamic party battling the Front National in the second tour of the 2022 presidential election. Both the Socialists and the center-right see French nationalism as a bigger enemy than Islam, so they strike a deal with the Muslim party, which gives them cabinet posts in return for Muslim control of the educational system. The Muslim party wins, a large share of France's schools and universities switch to an Islamic curriculum and large numbers of native French begin to convert.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so Islam will likely replace unbelief in Europe the way Christianity replaced it in late Roman times. I don't think it will happen that soon though.
Even though the protagonist can't bring himself to believe in Catholicism, he seems to be vaguely saddened by its passing into irrelevance. Unfortunately there's no hint of him feeling the same way about his people. In the book the Muslim president of France works to incorporate North Africa and the Middle East into the EU, but there's no mention of the inevitable increase in immigration that this would cause, of the native French being drowned out. The idea that the reproduction of people resembling Houellebecq might cease much earlier than the reproduction of other sorts of people doesn't come up.
The unique characteristics of the French, like hyper-sensuality, are not mourned here either. This could be self-censorship - Houellebecq savages feminism and irreligion in this book, so perhaps he thought that coming out for ethno-nationalism would have tipped the scales for his ostracism from the mainstream. But the fact remains: it's not a thorough, realistic evaluation of what's coming.
Most of the food eaten by the French characters here is Middle Eastern. This might have been meant to illustrate the cultural change after the election, but the disturbing thing is that Houellebecq doesn't have to explain to modern French readers what moussakas, sambouseks, tabboulehs, briouats, etc. are. Apparently they already know.
For a modern Western bestseller Submission has an absolutely shocking amount of gender realism. Houllebecq's protagonist acknowledges that women crave submission to rich and powerful men (the title doesn't only refer to Islam), that their looks fade much earlier than men's, that their entry into the workforce destroyed the family, and that giving them the vote may not have been a very wise decision.
He did get one obvious thing wrong though. After the Muslims win political power in his world, society moves in the conservative direction and women start wearing more modest clothes. This causes Houellebecq's protagonist to stop constantly thinking about sex.
Unlike Houellebecq I spent most of my formative years in a socially-conservative environment. In the old USSR a chance glimpse of an attractive woman's knee could produce the kind of physiological effects that, from what I hear, could only be matched in later generations by videographic approximations of what Islamic suicide bombers expect to be able to accomplish in paradise. Contrary to Houellebecq, the male libido is increased by scarcity, kind of like hunger.
In this book's version of the future France's Mulsim rulers pay intellectuals, even French literature professors, very well, so that they could afford multiple wives. This is presented as being eugenic. But all of the professors' wives that were mentioned here were Arab. In the real world the mixing of France's best brains with those of North African rustics is going to create an intellectual desert. And the last time that a Middle Eastern religion overtook a complex, decadent European culture, 99.9% of the latter's literature was lost forever. We can perhaps expect Muslims to try to preserve Europe's great architecture, but infidel literature? Houellebecq is delusional.
François, this book's protagonist, is the world's chief authority on the 19th-century French writer J-K Huysmans, yet he's bored by all non-literary intellectual topics. He's never finished a history book and has never had much interest in politics. I think that's pretty uncommon. People who are smart enough to be interested in one cerebral subject are usually at least curious about most of the others.
In spite of all the quibbles I described above, I sympathize with Houellebecq's message much more than with the messages of the vast majority of modern Western mainstream writers. If only he was good at presenting it.
Most of the exposition feels contrived. François keeps accidentally meeting people who just happen to be in a perfect position to tell him some bit of info that helps Houellebecq advance his next political argument. I did not feel at any point that this book should have been a novel. You want to explore some political possibilities? Write a blog post or a magazine article instead.
François is shown to be selfish, whiney, cowardly, lazy and hedonistic. It is possible to write entertainingly about uninspiring people, but that requires a lot of skill and hard work, and Houellebecq failed at it here. Which makes you think: a lazy, unmotivated guy like François would have failed at it too. Perhaps that's not a coincidence.