In the face of the influx of refugees, perceived by right-wing factions as menacing Europe’s demographic equilibrium, Michel Houellebecq seemed to put his finger on the pulse last year with a novel predicting the coming-to power of an Islamist president in France.
Submission (2015) envisages a 2022 presidential race in which real-life far-right politician Marine Le Pen competes with the charismatic leader of a fictitious French Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Ben Abbes, as a civil war between reactionary “nativists” and Islamists seems imminent. The scenario reminded me of the street fights between followers and opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-revolution Egypt, such as at the Etahadeya presidential palace 2012, or the civil unrest prior to and after June 30, 2013, when Brotherhood supporters at Rabaa al-Adaweya were camped out only a few kilometers from their opponents in Tahrir Square.
As an Egyptian reader, perhaps it was inevitable too that I drew comparisons with Egyptian writer Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s dystopian novel Bab al-Khoroug (Exit Door, 2012), an apocalyptic post-revolution scenario with fatal consequences for all factions — Islamists, revolutionaries and the military. His novel is as enthralling as Houellebecq’s because it was published while the political developments were still unfolding on the ground. In Fishere’s brilliant parable, the Brotherhood, the military and leftist revolutionaries each take a turn in power and uncompromisingly push forward their exclusive ideas on reform and statesmanship, thereby annihilating each other.
But let us start with Submission. Its protagonist is a French everyman called François, a 44-year-old Sorbonne professor who is, typically for Houellebecq, a bibulous and horny misfit. “I was as politicized as a handkerchief,” he says. But when warned by a nativist that the elections might have catastrophic repercussions, François flees to the countryside where dead bodies cover the floors of gas stations and pillaged supermarkets.
The first half is an enthralling page-turner, with tangible fear of the social upheaval that will hit France regardless of who wins. The left and the moderate right join forces with the Brotherhood, just as many leftists and intellectuals in Egypt supported Islamist presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi in 2012 to prevent former air force commander Ahmed Shafik from restoring the old regime.
Once considered the enfant terrible of French literature, Houellebecq has become France’s best-known writer, compared even with the great Jean-Paul Sartre, of whom Houellebecq is not particularly fond because Sartre tried to tell people what they should do.
Since 1994’s Whatever, Houellebecq has polarized readers with what have been described as xenophobic and pornographic novels that are deliberately politically incorrect. He’s been called a misogynist and a misanthrope and he gives bizarrely petulant answers in interviews. Women do indeed draw the short straw in his novels, often relegated as sex objects, desired and mistrusted by men. Yet for me Houellebecq’s literary genius is undeniable because he depicts the solitude and metaphysical deprivation of his specific subject with acute precision. Living in a tired consumption-driven society, the contemporary Frenchman has lost contact with any sense of agency and values. Houellebecq laconically describes a daily routine in which men are satiated by an ad nauseam of information, sex and alcohol.
Submission increased this polarization. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which occurred the same day the book was published, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told reporters that France is not Houellebecq, and the editor of the influential newspaper Libération remarked that Submission “will mark the date in history when the ideas of the far right made a grand return to serious French literature.” Houellebecq was accused of giving a gift to the far right, notably Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who shocked France in 2002 when he defeated leftist candidate Lionel Jospin and made it to the second round of elections with Jacques Chirac.
In Submission the fictitious Ben Abbes wins the race, abruptly ending the fighting in France, which insinuates that it was orchestrated by a state-security apparatus. As the reader expects, the Brotherhood set forth to erase the republic. Ben Abbes is far from being a Morsi though; he is a shrewdly gifted rhetorical speaker (apparently because he is the son of a Tunisian grocer) and an alliance-forger. He appeases the ruling elite and gives the post of prime minister to François Bayrou, who’s currently a real-life French mayor, while preserving for his party the ministry of education. For Houellebecq’s Brotherhood, societal transforming starts in schools. The privatized Sorbonne and other prestigious universities funded by Gulf money are dominated by Islamist students, while Saudis and Qataris flood their new ally. Yet Ben Abbes has ambitions to revive French colonial history by building a European empire that engulfs the Maghreb, Egypt and Lebanon. Houellebecq’s protagonists evoke the precedents of the Roman Empire and the Caliphate.
Real-life events undoubtedly also inspired Fishere. Originally published serially in Al-Tahrir newspaper like an eighteenth-century English novel, Exit Door chronicles the politically tumultuous 1990s through a letter from Ali, a high-ranking translator working in the presidential palace, to his son. It also describes the social upheavals that led to the January 25 revolution and numerous subsequent conflicts up until the year 2020.
Unlike Houellebecq, whose use of real French politicians gives Submission an edgy twist, Fishere’s protagonists are all fictitious, although clearly inspired by Egyptian public figures. The shrewd and academic politician Ezzedine, for example, initially evokes Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei (though his name also suggests a self-portrait).
Whereas Fishere puts politics at the center of his novel, Houellebecq returns to his habitual territory: a modern male’s quest for alleviation. As a result the second half of Submission is a disappointing let-down from a brilliant climax. I sensed that Houellebecq did not quite know how to finish the novel.
Through a philosophical and information-laden dialogue structure à la Dostoevsky, Robert Rediger is introduced to the plot, the new Sorbonne president, a convert and a charming representative of the new fascist regime. His long monologues on the perishability of human existence and the advantages of Islam impress Francois, and make us aware of the far right’s similarities to the Islamists. Rediger offers him back his teaching position at Sorbonne, a higher salary and polygamous lifestyle (he himself has two young wives, one 15 years old). Houellebecq would not be Houellebecq if his novels did not include graphic sex scenes, yet unlike in his masterpieces Atomised (1998) and Platform (2001), where they had an almost ontological character, here they seem superfluous and expendable — though his Brotherhood uses sex as one of the many perks to seduce their followers.
The novel gets tangled up in philosophical questions about Friederich Nietzsche’s “Übermensch” as Rediger justifies a patriarchal ruling elite: “Only few individuals are destined to procreate with their semen successive generations, on whom in turn depends an infinite number of generations.” The modern Islamists are not depicted without the usual “Western” stereotypes, so are eager to eliminate women from the public sphere. And the lustful men that dominate the novel are lured in by the prospect of “possessing” up to four women. Francois is an easy target. The oriental food he consumes throughout the book is analogous with the personal benefits Europe’s hedonistic life has become focused on. Francois describes the French intellectual elite appeasing the Brotherhood and the Gulf rulers as “collaborators,” a term used to describe the Vichy government under the Nazis during World War II.
Whereas the masses in Submission are tamed, their resistance to the Brotherhood starkly deficient, Fishere’s social upheaval scenarios are uncontrolled and unforeseeable. Inspired perhaps by Robespierre, a leader of the French Revolution whose revolutionary zest led to the guillotining of thousands of adversaries, Fishere’s wise liberal Ezzedine earns the nickname “butcher” after clamping down on thousands of Salafis in order to pave the way for “necessary” reforms. In one of the most lucid elaborations on the spoils of fascism, Fishere’s protagonist Ali says:
“Our wound was too deep to heal. All these confrontations had changed something in us, as first the January revolution had changed the people. The new aspect of these confrontations was not the shocking level of violence and bestiality, but the acceptance of it by the people and their collaboration. Ezzedine did not just kill a hundred thousand victims alone, but through the help and assent of hundreds of thousands of the people. Those who denounced their neighbors … and those who shrugged, saying: ‘What is the alternative?’ We were all partners in this.”
Whereas Exit Door explores how a power vacuum generated by the cataclysmic nature of revolutions can lead to bloodshed, Submission imagines the radicalization of a society from within and the transformation of democracy into autocracy. The two novels belong to the genre of dystopian literature like George Orwell’s 1984. Unlike 1984, where the regime rules with an iron fist and “thought police” identify renegades who attempt to oppose it, even if just in their thoughts, Submission’s rulers render their subjects happily compliant through luxurious bribes. Perhaps the most shocking implication of both Houellebecq‘s and Fishere’s novels is that tyranny presupposes the culpability of the people.