France is tense. On the Metro there in 2015 I saw a large black African man – probably Senegalese – offer to help a family – presumably Moroccan – move a pram from the carriage to the platform. The wife wore a scarf, but her husband was in a t-shirt and jeans. The couple recoiled. Without pretense to politeness they waved the man and his offer away. That was the day before Charlie Hebdo and months before Bataclan.

Houellebecq writes into the heart of the current French tension around identity and cohesion. Submission imagines Muhammad Ben Abbes – a Muslim Fraternity candidate – winning the Presidential election of 2022. Ben Abbes emerges from the political ruck a little like Stephen Bradbury, the inadvertent ice-skating champion.

On release Submission was cast as a satirical prophecy criticising Islam. But that misses the point. Houellebecq’s real target is a France that’s become decadent, exhausted. For him, rationalism and a wage slave consumerism have created a meagre life for the post-Christian French.

Reading Submission is like watching test cricket – dullness peppered with sudden excitements. Yet, you can rely on Houellebecq to surprise.

Reading Submission is like watching test cricket – dullness peppered with sudden excitements. Yet, you can rely on Houellebecq to surprise.

Like a pilgrim of yore, Francois, our protagonist, visits the Black Virgin of Rocamadour to see the wooden Madonna. Her baby Jesus is not depicted as an infant but a tiny, fully formed man. Houellebecq does not mock or belittle the Madonna and Child, but reflects on the mysteries of Christianity and the vanished power of that culture. Francois agonises about converting to Islam throughout the book, as his career flounders in the new order. Ultimately Ben Abbes triumphs in 2022 over a mainstream that has grown complacent and unsure of itself. His commitment to income equality also did the Muslim Fraternity no harm.

I would recommend a visit to Rocamadour the next time you’re in France. Prayers may well be useful in the run up to the next election in the Republic. – Mark Swivel.

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