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As the 2022 French Presidential election looms, two candidates emerge as favourites: Marine Le Pen of the Front National, and the charismatic Muhammed Ben Abbes of the growing Muslim Fraternity. Forming a controversial alliance with the political left to block the Front National’s alarming ascendency, Ben Abbes sweeps to power, and overnight the country is transformed. This proves to be the death knell of French secularism, as Islamic law comes into force: women are veiled, polygamy is encouraged and, for our narrator François – misanthropic, middle-aged and alienated – life is set on a new course.
Submission is a devastating satire, comic and melancholy by turns, and a profound meditation on faith and meaning in Western society.
It's hard to overstate the controversy that has hounded Houellebecq's Submission since its publication in France which coincided with the attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo and the persistent accusations of Islamophobia might well color the reception of the English-language translation (by Lorin Stein of the Paris Review). This would be a travesty. The novel's moral complexity, concerned above all with how politics shape or annihilate personal ethics, is singular and brilliant. An expert on the works of J.K. Huysmans, Fran ois is a lonely professor at a semi-prestigious Paris university; subsisting on frozen dinners and occasional sex, he is politically indifferent. Nonetheless, he is forced to take notice when the Muslim Brotherhood, under the leadership of the charismatic Mohammed Ben Abbes, comes to power in an electoral coup. Fran ois's colleagues scramble to adapt to (or resist) the now non-secular university's policies, as women are excluded from teaching and a Muslim-friendly president is installed. Fran ois travels to the monastery where Huysmans himself took refuge, knowing that if he returns to Paris, he will find a changed country. Eventually, he will have to reckon with his own convictions or join the bulk of his fellow intellectuals in convenient conversion to the new regime. This novel is not a paranoid political fantasy; it merely contains one. Houellebecq's argument becomes an investigation of the content of ideology, and he has written an indispensable, serious book that returns a long-eroded sense of consequence, immediacy, and force to contemporary literature.