Slouching Toward Mecca


by Michel Houellebecq
Paris: Flammarion, 300 pp., €21.00 (paper) (a translation from the French by Lorin Stein will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in October)
Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq; drawing by James Ferguson

The best-selling novel in Europe today, Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission, is about an Islamic political party coming peacefully to power in France. Its publication was announced this past fall in an atmosphere that was already tense. In May a young French Muslim committed a massacre at a Belgian Jewish museum; in the summer Muslim protesters in Paris shouted “Death to the Jews!” at rallies against the war in Gaza; in the fall stories emerged about hundreds of French young people, many converts, fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq; a French captive was then beheaded in Algeria; and random attacks by unstable men shouting “allahu akbar” took place in several cities. Adding to the tension was a very public debate about another best seller, Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide français, that portrayed Muslims as an imminent threat to the French way of life.1

Zemmour’s succès de scandale ensured that Soumission would be met with hysteria. So was the fact that Houellebecq had gotten into trouble a decade ago for telling an interviewer that whoever created monotheistic religion was a “cretin” and that of all the faiths Islam was “the dumbest.” The normally measured editor of Libération, Laurent Joffrin, declared five days before Soumission appeared that Houellebecq was “keeping a place warm for Marine Le Pen at the Café de Flore.” The reliably dogmatic Edwy Plenel, a former Trotskyist who runs the news site Mediapart, went on television to call on his colleagues, in the name of democracy, to stop writing news articles on Houellebecq—France’s most important contemporary novelist and winner of the Prix Goncourt—effectively erasing him from the picture, Soviet style. Ordinary readers could not get their hands on the book until January 7, the official publication date. I was probably not the only one who bought it that morning and was reading it when the news broke that two French-born Muslim terrorists had just killed twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

The irony was beyond anyone’s imagination. And it was doubled by the fact that the cover of the Charlie published that day had a feature mocking Houellebecq as a masturbating drunkard. It was tripled when it was revealed that one of Houellebecq’s close friends, the left-wing economist and Charlie contributor Bernard Maris, was among the victims. (Maris had just published a book, Houellebecq économiste, calling his friend the deepest analyst of life under contemporary capitalism.) Houellebecq appeared on television, devastated, then broke off his publicity tour and disappeared into the countryside. A few hours earlier Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in his first interview after the attacks, felt obliged to say that “France is not Michel Houellebecq. It is not intolerance, hate, and fear.” It is hardly likely that Valls had read his book.

Given all this, it will take a long time for the French to read and appreciate Soumission for the strange and surprising thing that it is. Michel…

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