To judge by the publishers’ lists, dystopias are big literary business in France right now. Three 2015 releases propose different views of a political future and the role of memory. Michel Houellebecq’s Soumission (Flammarion) is set in the present and near future and is narrated by François, a middle-aged academic who observes a growing political crisis in France. The only effective opposition to the National Front is an Islamic party led by a Mohammed Ben Abbes, backed by the Socialists. As the novel continues, a sharia state is imposed, women are banned from working, and in a sour parody of Gaullism, France returns to global influence through its alliances with Arab and North African states.
It’s slightly regrettable that the jacket to the English translation positions it as thriller, since it’s a considerably more unsettling and sophisticated novel than the rumpus around it might lead you to believe. François is your classic Houellebecq character, a jaundiced loner trapped in what Northrop Frye memorably called the squirrel cage of the ego. That stasis is both physical and emotional. He can’t follow his Jewish girlfriend to Israel, and cannot mirror his literary hero Huysmans in submission to Catholicism.
References to unfashionable Catholic writers such as Péguy and the decision to make François a specialist in Huysmans, who publicly rejected the Zola school of Naturalism, is a riposte to the received notion of the left-leaning politically programmed writer. It also underpins Houellebecq’s challenge to the entire French intellectual class, whose apparent political engagement is here revealed to be feather-light. In Soumission, the establishment’s capitulation to the new regime is total. The exclusion of women from public life is barely protested, and as Saudi and Qatari money pour in to the institutions the academics accept the new dispensation entirely.
Soumission is not, I don’t think, a black-and-white neocon fantasy. It is instead a parable of occupation and collaboration, which unearths uncomfortable memories of France under Vichy, a past so often airbrushed in in the nation’s self-image. There’s a stunning bit of writing in the last chapter, where Houellebecq sets out a future for François that includes conversion – but the entire chapter is written in the conditional tense. It’s a classic bit of narrative misdirection; there we are, expecting François to submit like Winston Smith, but even that is not assured. He’s certainly a collaborator, but belief is beyond him.
Orwell’s 1984 is absolutely the source text for 2084: La Fin Du Monde (Gallimard). It’s written by Boualem Sansal, an Algerian novelist who like Kamel Daoud, writes in French (see a previous blogpost). 2084 is set in the state of Abistan, a future theocracy of indeterminate geography (it could be North Africa, or even France) in which the people worship Yolah, whose representative on earth is Abi. The Winston Smith character is Ati, who meets Nas, a civil servant working for the archives department who has just come back from an archaeological dig in which a site was discovered that contradicts the ‘truths’ as expressed in the holy book of Gkabul– that there was a world before Abistan. It isn’t the seamless read of Soumission; the four sections don’t have quite the same coherence of voice or pace – but its merit lies not in the plot but in an imaginative scope that borders on the best science fiction.
Felicité Herzog’s Gratis (Gallimard) is a rather slighter offering. It begins at the height of the dotcom boom in London, telling the story of Ali Tarac, an arrogant outsider setting up a telecoms service. It reads rather as your standard corporate thriller at this point (Herzog used to work at Lazard and JP Morgan). After the crash, Ali Tarac disappears from view but it emerges that he is behind a fabulously successful company called New Birth, which allows people to escape their lives and assume different identities in a form of human recycling. In retrospect, I’d have liked Herzog to junk the earlier dotcom section and fashion the whole novel around the socially disruptive implications of New Birth. That could have taken it into seriously challenging territory.
This year I finally caught up with HHhH (Grasset) by Laurent Binet, which was originally published in 2010. HHhH refers to the Nazi quip ‘Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich) and tells the story of the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, Nazi head of security, acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the architects of the Holocaust. But it’s also a painstaking account of other treatments of the story; what it means to record events, and the ethical limits of fiction in retelling history, and in doing so positions itself as a literary rebuke to Jonathan Littell’s hallucinatory Les Bienveillantes (Gallimard, 2006).
Lastly, it’s been fun discovering Maurice Druon this year. I’d never heard of him until George R.R Martin cited him as an influence, and reading Le Roi de Fer, the first volume of Les Rois Maudits (Livre de Poche) you can certainly see why. Full of intrigue, violence and political struggle set in the early 1300s during the time of Philippe Le Bel, whose daughter Isabelle, wife of Edward II , also features. There’s no ethical meditation on the fictionalisation of history here; it’s a spanking read. There’s even a French miniseries with Gérard Depardieu and Jeanne Moreau , which is available on YouTube. If you’ve got withdrawal symptoms for Game of Thrones and don’t mind the inferior production values, it might be worth checking out.