Paris as (Em)Pyre: Submission by Michel Houellebecq

on Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Age may well have transformed Michel Houellebecq into some kind of crumpled homeless hobbit but I'm quite certain that behind the dishevelled facade lies the one true prophet of the paranoid European zeitgeist. Of course, Houellebecq has always courted controversy - he loves to shock in as offensive a way as possible; he is Charlie Hebdo personified. In the past, it has been through absurd premises that served as entrees into extreme (usually sexually explicit) calamities. Somewhere in the middle days of his career, with books like Platform and The Possibility of an Island, he kind of disappeared like a gerbil up his own arse. The classic Houellebecquian (I suppose it must be a word by now) tropes were there but the man himself seemed absent. Sure, they shocked, but they were boring. My faith in this odd little man was restored with The Map and The Territory, one of the few postmodern clusterfucks I've read that actually works. Now he's back and, I think it's fair to say, he's found a new purpose.

Submission is very much Houellebecq's state of the world novel. It doesn't take much digging beyond the headlines to know that France is ground zero for the ideological and religious battle over Europe. Houellebecq takes this one step further and sets his book only a few years in the future, when the Muslim majority achieves legitimate political supremacy - France has its first Muslim president. Rather than some lame, dictatorial cliche, Mohammed Ben-Abbes is a charismatic, popular, smooth talking politician. In many ways he represents hope for a bright future. Able to access unlimited wealth from Arab allies, he lifts France from its economic doldrums and sets it on a path of reconstruction. He even speaks moderately on the issue of Israel/Palestine (yup, it's still a problem twenty years from now). Naturally, there are compromises that have to be made. The Sorbonne is privatised and only men are allowed to teach. Girls can study but they must be fully covered. Polygamy is both legalised and encouraged. There is a new focus on 'the family as the central unit of French society', used to justify the relegation of women to domestic duties. Oh, and Ben-Abbes aspires to some kind of new Roman Empire via the EU, over which France will have control.

Houellebecq frames the novel through an academic prism; its narrator, Francois, is a middle rung literature lecturer at Paris III with a particular penchant for JK Huysmans. Caught up in a whopping midlife crisis, he spends his days stressing about his academic future while making sense of his relationship with his Jewish student, Miryam. When not fucking up his life, Francois pays close attention to the ascent of Ben-Abbes's Muslim Brotherhood amidst the general tumult that has beset French politics. When Ben-Abbe's presidency becomes a fait accompli, Miryam flees to Israel and Francois goes off the deep end, scouring the escort pages of local newspapers in search of meaning through sex. Here, Houellebecq is up to his old tricks; Francois's exploits are cheap and demeaning. Despair ultimately drives him to the same monastery where Huysmans sought refuge - a place that is symbolic of previous battles with Islamic forces - but that too is a bunk. He can barely tolerate a week before he gives up. With his tail between his legs (both literally and figuratively), he slinks back to Paris where he resigns himself to conversion. You know what they say: If you can't beat 'em...

Submission is much more than the hype would have you believe. It's very easy to get caught up in the sensationalism of its premise but Houellebecq proves his genius by not succumbing to the paranoia behind it. Rather, at heart, the book is a brilliant exploration of academic and individual freedom in a rapidly changing world. It is equal parts horrifying and hilarious: Francois might be an exercise in frustration but he ain't nothing compared with his colleagues. You have to feel for his former head of department, a brilliant woman, who has no choice but to accept a generous severance package. Similarly, you can't help but laugh at the weedy stereotypical dorks who have been assigned multiple young, attractive wives by the new administration thereby ensuring their enthusiastic embrace of a new God. To this end I was reminded of another great Michel, Tournier, who explored the way major societal changes can benefit the unlikeable misfits in his remarkable novel, The Erl King (aka The Ogre). Ditto Alberto Moravia in The Conformist. Must be a European thing.

It is hard, in the end, to gauge what Houellebecq wants us to think of France's future. Submission seems a journalistic enterprise undertaken without a particular agenda by a reporter in possession of a telescopic (an inter-dimensional) lens; it is a plausible description of how things might turn out. In so doing, he steers clear of outright judgement and allows hedonism, anomie and religion to square off in some kind of perverse royal rumble where none can really be the victor. Except for those of us who read it. We definitely win.

Mussolini's Pendulum: Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

on Monday, November 2, 2015
Stop the presses! A new Eco? How did I not even know about this? And.. wait for it... a mere 190 pages. Where are the other 500? Someone has given the space/time continuum an unceremonious shove. Could it be that the master of the cerebral literary thriller has gone off on a lesser folly?

Colonna, a washed up journo, is approached to write a memoir about a newspaper that has never actually gone to press. Part of his brief is to assemble a group of similar hacks to 'publish' twelve editions of the paper as an example of what it once was. The main aim, so far as Colonna can tell, is to help the commissioning benefactor get a leg up in the higher echelons of Italian society through what amounts to blackmail. At first, Numero Zero seems a trite commentary on the nature of contemporary journalism. Set at the dawn of the information age, but written with hindsight, it is perfectly posited to take well-aimed pot shots. Alas, what we get instead are cheap gags, lame puns and completely obvious 'revelations'. Evelyn Waugh this is not. Then, about half way through, Eco finds his feet and remembers, thank god, that he is (to borrow from Samuel L. Jackson) Umberto Fucking Eco. The master. One of the lowly hacks Colonna has hired comes to him with a conspiracy to end all conspiracies (at least in Italian terms): Mussolini survived the war and was kept hidden in anticipation of his return to power. Backed by a bunch of pro-Fascist movements across Europe - the Stay Behind gangs - and centred around the Italian incarnation Gladio, the plot was furthered by all kinds of dastardly undertakings. The kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro? That was them. The mysterious death of Pope John Paul I? Yup, them too. The bombing at Piazza Fontana? You get the point. The only thing that stopped the whole thing coming to fruition was the rather inconvenient natural death of Mussolini. They had waited too long to make their move.

Snatching at a grab bag of historical moments, Eco deftly weaves a meta conspiracy that is so much fun it is hard not to buy in. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for 'what if' novels and while Numero Zero is no Fatherland, it still possesses the creative attention to manufactured detail that I adore. It also leans heavily on a book I loved as a kid - In God's Name - David Yallop's riveting investigation into the Vatican bank and its possible role in the murder of the first John Paul. Eco explicitly uses the book's findings as an evidentiary tether, citing Yallop as authority for many of his more ludicrous but wonderful assertions. The whole thing is a blast and Eco rounds it off, in true style, with a murder. The hack journo is silenced and the entire project is shut down. That might have been the end of it, except Eco is determined to make one last point about journalism in the information age. There are, he suggests, no new stories under the sun. Sure, there might be offcuts around the frayed edges but the idea of the exclusive keeper of information has been obliterated. It's a point well made in an enjoyable, if rather slight, work by a true master in his twilight years.