Michel Houellebecq: French Novelist for Our Times

By Karwowski, Michael | Contemporary Review, July 2003 | Go to article overview
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Michel Houellebecq: French Novelist for Our Times


Karwowski, Michael, Contemporary Review


THE controversial French writer Michel Houellebecq has probably initiated more acres of newsprint than any other writer, living or dead. In the process, he has been hailed as a prescient genius and dismissed as a rabid extremist, but almost always recognised as a novelist of great power and originality.

The last of his three novels, Platform, published shortly before al-Qaeda's attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, predicted that 'never, for as long as Islam exists, will peace reign in the world'. The novel features an attack by Islamic fundamentalists on a tourist resort in the Far East which reads uncannily like a prediction of the Bali bombing a year later in which more than 200 people died.

In an interview with the influential French literary magazine Lire to promote Platform, Houellebecq did not disagree when the interviewer spoke of his hatred for Islam: 'Yes, yes, you can speak of hatred... Islam is a dangerous religion'.

The upshot was that the very week of 9/11, Houellebecq's face appeared on the front page of the Moroccan daily newspaper Liberation over the caption: 'This man hates you'. Death threats were made against both him and his publisher before, a year later, four leading Muslim bodies took him to court accused of racial discrimination and inciting religious hatred.

Houellebecq (pronounced Well-beck) defended himself on the grounds of freedom of expression: 'I've never shown the slightest hatred for Muslims', he told the Palais de Justice in what the French media termed 1 'Affair Houellebecq, 'but I still have the greatest contempt for Islam. One cannot say that when one expresses an opinion against Islam, that amounts to an attack against the Muslim community.

Salman Rushdie, himself a novelist whose work has attracted the hostile attentions of Muslims, defended Houellebecq in print, arguing that it was his accusers rather than the French writer who were more likely to increase antagonism towards Muslims in the West. 'Platform is a good novel and Houellebecq a fine writer who writes for serious reasons', he wrote, 'and neither he nor his book deserves to be tarred and feathered'. In the event, Houellebecq was acquitted by the court, a decision hailed by the French media as a major victory against censorship.

L'Affair Houellebecq did not represent the first occasion that this enfant terrible of French -- or European -- literature found himself in the eye of a media storm for his uncanny prescience. His previous novel, Atomised (1998), appeared to condone cloning as a means of dealing with mankind's perennial competitiveness and aggression. This was years before the final deciphering of the Human Genome raised the possibility of interfering with human genes to produce healthier human beings.

Atomised was a world-wide best-seller and hailed as the great end-of-millennium novel. The English writer Julian Barnes memorably praised it as 'a novel which hunts big game while others settle for shooting rabbit'. Debated on the front page of the leading French newspaper Le Monde, it was denounced by the Catholic press, and bitterly divided the jury of the Prix Goncourt, France's top literary prize, who gave the award to someone else.

Houellebecq's first novel, Whatever (1994), was hardly less controversial. The book amounted to an extended attack on the liberal values of the 1 960s which ushered in the sexual revolution. Far from liberating humanity, Houellebecq argued, these were condemning it to a profound solitude. 'Love can only blossom under certain mental conditions, rarely conjoined, and totally opposed to the freedom of morals which characterises the modem era', he wrote. The outcome of the 'Peace and Love' of the '60s was that: 'No civilisation, no epoch has been capable of developing such a quantity of bitterness in its subjects'.

The rising tide of divorce in the West, the increasing numbers of people who live alone, and the explosion of agency dating, now even involving the more traditional Asian communities, would seem to lend credence to this view.

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