9 Jan 2015

Michel Houellebecq: writer in the eye of the storm

It is an unnerving coincidence: as Michel Houellebecq’s controversial new novel was published on Wednesday, terrorists raided the offices of Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 people.

It is an unnerving coincidence: as Michel Houellebecq's controversial new novel was published on Wednesday, terrorists raided the offices of Charlie Habdo and murdered 12 people (Reuters)

As if that were not enough, Houellebecq, the enfant terrible and provocateur of French literature, features on the current front cover of the weekly satirical magazine.

Soumission (Submission) was always destined to provoke debate – it has been described as Islamophobic by some critics – but now it will forever be associated with the worst terrorist attack France has endured in decades.

It is currently the best-selling book on Amazon’s French and German sites and is due to be published in English in September (Channel 4 News has been told the date will not be brought forward in the light of events).

The book’s French publishers, Flammarion, have a sensation on their hands, but not for reasons they will welcome. They were forced to close one of their offiices in Paris shortly after the murders, while police guarded Flammarion’s headquarters.

For now, Houellebecq has stopped promoting Submission – he was a friend of Bernard Maris, who was killed in the attack – but he will appear on French television on Friday evening (9 January).

Why the controversy? Houellebecq’s books are defined by their emotion-free nihilism, dystopian worlds where people seek pleasure through sex and drugs and do not get too hung up about Judeo-Christian notions of right and wrong.

His visions are reminiscent of some of JG Ballard’s novels , his humour and outrageousness bring to mind a young Martin Amis, while at 56, he is looking more and more like an older Iggy Pop, despite being 11 years his junior.

It is an unnerving coincidence: as Michel Houellebecq's controversial new novel was published on Wednesday, terrorists raided the offices of Charlie Habdo and murdered 12 people (Reuters)

Houellebecq’s last novel, The Map and the Territory, won him the Prix Goncourt, France’s most pretigious literary prize. But he has also been accused of misogyny, racism and Islamophobia, which he denies.

In 2002, he was acquitted of inciting racism by a French court after saying that “all religions are stupid, but Islam is the stupidest of all”.

Submission – the same title as a documentary by Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim – imagines France in the year 2022.

At the presidential elections, French voters are left with a choice between Marine Le Pen’s far right National Front and a Muslim party fronted by Mohammed Ben Abbes.

They choose Ben Abbes at the head of an Islamic government, and women are forced to give up work and wear the veil, while polygamy is legalised.

Before the book was published, Laurent Joffrin, editor of left wing Lib√©ration, said it signalled “a date in the history of ideas when the thinking of the far right burst into, or returned to, serious literature”.

His warnings have not deterred France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande, who has said he intends to read the novel “because it’s sparking a debate”.

It is an unnerving coincidence: as Michel Houellebecq's controversial new novel was published on Wednesday, terrorists raided the offices of Charlie Habdo and murdered 12 people (Reuters)

The final words must go to Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck) himself.

He would not talk to Channel 4 News on Friday, but told the Paris Review a week ago he was not being provocative – “if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves”.

He said it was “not very realistic” to imagine France with a Muslim president in seven years’ time, but admitted that his “mass market side, my thriller side” had persuaded him to do so.

Asked if he was helping to give the impression that “Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles”, he said this notion was already being propagated by the media, “so my book won’t have any effect”.

It is noticeable that Houellebecq has changed his stance on Islam being “the stupidest (religion) of all”. He has now read the Koran and it “turns out to be much better than I thought…. the most obvious conclusion is that the jihadists are bad Muslims”. After Wednesday’s murders, that is food for thought.