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Posted January 2015

Literary licence – Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo in France, President Francois Hollande was quick to tweet: “Aucun acte barbare ne saura jamais éteindre la liberté de la presse,” (“No act of barbarism will ever be able to extinguish the freedom of the press.”) Never mind the chest-beating and bathetic apodictic assuredness (“no … will ever”), his was a good and important statement to make. So imagine the media’s surprise when a few days later his Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared: “la France ça n'est pas la soumission, ce n'est pas Houellebecq. Ce n’est pas l’intolérance, la haine." (“France is not submission, she is not Houellebecq. She is not intolerance, hatred”).

What had happened that Minister Valls felt compelled to name and shame the novelist Michel Houellebecq on charges of xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia?

Mr Houellebecq, the chain-smoking and hard-living author of several controversial novels is widely read and well known in France (and elsewhere). His latest book “Soumission” (“Submission”), a futurist novel, which triggered Minister Valls’ outburst, had the misfortune of being released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. In another irony of events, Charlie Hebdo’s cover, freshly off the printing presses on 6 January 2015, sported a cartoon of Mr Houellebecq as clairvoyant, predicting: „In 2015 I will lose my teeth and in 2022 I will do Ramadan.“

Submission” is set in 2022 and told from the point of view of Francois, a pathetic, wimpish, lazy bastard of a man in his forties who still managed to grab a much-coveted professorship of literature at one of Paris’ universities. The plot follows a presidential election, which is won by a charismatic Muslim president and describes how France, after a spell of civil unrest, turns into an Islamic country. The protagonist observes events unfold with clinical, detached sang-froid – he is less sanguine, though, about the end of his relationship with one of his Jewish students who flees to Israel – because France’s transformation appears to coincide with his own deep-rooted desire for submission and salvation.

My summary may be brief, but even so – how anyone could fail to see that “Submission” is a satire on contemporary France and the West is beyond me. Much like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it employs a future setting to exaggerate and thereby criticize certain pertinent features of current society. If Submission’s protagonist serves a purpose it’s that of a cipher of a decadent and impotent West, which suffers from too much intellectualism, isolation and coldness. What makes the novel a scandal, in my view, is its tale of submission: Francois is not coerced into submission by the new regime, on the contrary, he willingly and happily does so and – in another satirical twist - is even promised several virgins after the legalisation of polygamy, thus solving his life-long problem with women.

So what caused the minister’s anger? The novel’s implicit xenophobia and racism? Sorry to say, but I could not find any traces of either, be they implicit or explicit. That it paints a less than flattering picture of France as a country whose culture is in decline (“France is not submission”)? Maybe, it does, but how can a minister still declare the author of a novel an undesirable alien (“France is not Houellebecq”)? After the minister’s tirade, Mr Houellebecq did the only sensible thing and went underground for a few weeks, cancelling all promo events for his book in France.

Perhaps, in the wake of these events, it’s necessary to supply politicians with a user manual for novels (pace Harald Martenstein).

1. It’s important to not confuse author and protagonist even if a novel is told by an “I” narrator. Should you find a sentence in a novel like “I would find myself standing over our bed … with an ice pick gripped in my fist, waiting for Evelyn to open her eyes” (from “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis) this does not mean that its author wants to drive an ice pick into his girlfriend’s brain. By the same token, readers should not try to do this in the privacy of their homes as ice picks and human brains don’t go together well and murder is still a crime.

2. Some novels (“American Psycho” is a prime example here) deal with extremely nasty things and don’t depict our world as we would like it to be. Political pamphlets are better suited to this task. Most novels are thought experiments and novelists try to get into the brain of characters to tell a story from their point of view. Not all characters they develop are nice guys. Some can indeed be sexist, racist and bloodthirsty thugs such as the yuppie banker from American Psycho – and most of Shakespeare’s protagonists, come to think of it. Readers should be aware of the risk they take when opening a book.

3. There are authors who want to change the world for the better (few, I’d say) and others who don’t (the great majority). Besides, not all authors are kind and charming people who you would like to meet over a beer. Some may have an unkempt appearance and reek of cigarettes like Mr Houellebecq. But as it happens, their novels may be more interesting than texts by plain decent folk.

4. As to messages – some novels, irritatingly, may refrain from issuing an unambiguous message. That’s their right. They are a different genre to leaders and comments in a newspaper, which do have a message. That’s why there are interpretations of literature but no interpretations of leaders and comments.

5. Finally, satire is a tricky genre. To the question “what may satire do” Kurt Tucholsky (1890–1935), a German writer and journalist, replied in 1919 in one word: “everything”. Pressing on: “Does satire exaggerate”, Mr Tucholsky said: “Satire has to exaggerate and is, in its deepest nature, unjust. It inflates the truth to make it clearer and it can do nothing more than work according to the bible verse: the just will suffer with the unjust.” The huffing and puffing as well as the easily offended with weak hearts should therefore avoid satires altogether.

Advice: Politicians should only talk about novels after they have read them. It’s not enough to have scanned the blurb.

And as to the freedom of expression, if it is as dear to them as they claim it to be, it must apply wholesale. Double standards are a no-no.

 

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