By Michel Houellebecq

Translated by

Lorin Stein

Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

256 pp. $25.

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Reviewed by

Rayyan Al-Shawaf

nolead ends Michel Houellebecq, enfant terrible of France's genteel literary scene, delivers in Submission a novel with the futuristic, outlandish, and politically incorrect premise that his country faces wholesale Islamization.

You might expect a grim, dystopian setting. After all, the author has made clear his disdain for Islam. But Submission is something different, even as it registers a sly critique of French culture. Its strengths compensate for its overly expository style and lack of fleshed-out supporting characters.

François, narrator and protagonist, is a Sorbonne University professor of French literature dogged by existential malaise. "Had I fallen prey, in middle age, to a kind of andropause?" he muses. The meteoric rise of both the far right and the Muslim Brotherhood in the run-up to the 2023 presidential election forces him to confront a prospect he finds "disconcerting, and slightly repellent." That would be the "idea that political history could play any part in my own life."

The Arabic word islam can be translated as "submission," though some would argue that "deliverance" better captures its meaning. And everyone is talking about Islam. Politicians fret about aligning their shell-shocked parties with the Brotherhood, led by the fictional Mohammed Ben Abbes. Both the center-right and the Socialists favor such a strategy; their three-way alliance with the Brotherhood wins the election, and Ben Abbes becomes president.

François, alas, never directly encounters the subsequent Islamization of France. That mostly takes place offstage. Nor are native-born Muslim characters featured. And secular Muslim voices are almost wholly absent from the proceedings. But Houellebecq does assign a pivotal role to a Muslim convert. Robert Rediger, director of the now-Islamic Sorbonne, helps François understand the allure of Islam, particularly for men. To begin with, there's polygamy - which piques our protagonist's interest. But the religion offers a lot more.

Rediger, it turns out, is a former French "nativist" (a Catholic of culturally conservative bent). He maintains that Islamic values, especially the imperative of faith, the centrality of family, and the subservience of women, are those of the nativist movement itself. In his view, Europe has "reached a point of such putrid decomposition that it [can] no longer save itself, any more than fifth-century Rome could have done." For France's sake, and Europe's, too, it's time to give Islam a shot. Will this rationale win Francois over to Islam? Will he "submit," like so many of his compatriots do, to its wide-ranging strictures? Read on.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.