Submission by Michel Houellebecq and Lorin Stein (translator)

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Submission by Michel Houellebecq and Lorin Stein (translator)

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Do not buy this thinking to get a religious diatribe, rather a harsh look at political mediocrity and First World Problems.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: September 2015
Publisher: William Heinemann
ISBN: 9781785150241

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What do you expect from Submission? It is after all from one of Europe's more blunt huge-sellers, one who is most forthright in his opinions, narratives and characters' sexual lives. It has become indelibly linked with a new Europe, after its reception and contents led to publicity on the cover of Charlie Hebdo, which resulted in something less savoury than literature, to say the least. Do you expect it to be about a France of the near future, where a Muslim political party provides the president? Well, don't go into this submissively following your expectations.

It's more than clear from the first few pages that the situation of a Muslim France will be met through a character, and it's equally clear that character will be met at no quick speed. We're concerned with Francois, an academic losing all taste for life. He thought his lot changed indelibly for the worse when he finished his dissertation regarding a little-read late Victorian author, and he was forced to enter real world society, and now in his early middle-age he's giving up on a lot more – happiness, sex, society. We're in the lead-up to the next French election but one, and due to the weakness of the centrist left and right parties it's a choice between two more extremes – Marine le Pen's Front National, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of life in this book once the election happens, but that is certainly not the core of the novel. There is little that's incendiary here against any religion, beyond a few diatribe-like monologues from certain characters. (Denialists will point out the anti-Semitic aspects of this Islam, but then the real world's Muslim Brotherhood is the same organisation as Hamas, so go figure. I will concede that if you retranslate the original as Muslim Fraternity, it's a different, new, fictional entity.) If anything the book is not really about religion – it much more concerns what it looks at more intimately, the life of Francois and how he feels it going downhill. The Islamisation of France is of course relevant to the story – especially when you consider how many anti-Muslim commentators deem the females of the religion to be left high and dry, lonely and with little prospect. Well here's a successful man in the dominant ethnicity and class, and he feels the same.

The future aspects of the book are to the core, too – we know of the French legal ban of the veil, but the rescinding of that is never mentioned. There is talk of some men on campus being unarmed – not that day – and other quirks that make us feel on icy ground. We also skate into the buffers of real characters being represented – particularly Ms le Pen but others we in Britain are unlikely to have heard of. That's also with the case of Huysmans, the author subject of so much of Francois's life and thoughts. I doubt a thousand people open a book of his in English every year.

So you do have to take the puff quotes on the book, about it being better than anything published in English, with a pinch of salt (and beware a plot summary that tells you everything). Certainly it is different to anything published in English, as it is strictly concerned with France. Parisian street names and establishments are mentioned copiously, and the world is irredeemably French – as it would have to be; the story gets much more charge from being based in what is allegedly a secular country. What this means is the Anglophone probably misses out on a lot – references, politicians and more. You can't read this seeing any reality of a European society suddenly turned Islamic. All we learn on that regard is that the trains get even worse, and that some high-brow academics will see the appeal of under-aged, polygamous brides. You certainly can read this book, but you do have to abandon your submission to the headlines behind it beforehand. A lot will go over your head regardless, however, whatever your expectations.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The author's The Map and the Territory found great favour with us for its melange of interests, not least of which is modern art.

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Buy Submission by Michel Houellebecq and Lorin Stein (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Submission by Michel Houellebecq and Lorin Stein (translator) at Amazon.com.

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