Forthcoming: Captivity ( Fogság) by György Spiró

FogsagThanks to the labour of the indefatigable Tim Wilkinson, this autumn we will finally gain access to an important work by yet another representative of Hungarian letters who has all the chances to become a household name among the readers of literature in translation, just like Nadas, Esterhazy and Krasznahorkai.

Captivity is a vast historical novel  dedicated to the period between the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the end of the First Jewish-Roman War. The action primarily takes place in Rome, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, following the trials and tribulations of a Roman Jew called Uri. The protagonist is a physically weak yet intellectually endowed youth whose adventures start when his father arranges for his journey to Judea as part of the delegation  delivering the annual ritual tax for the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the course of the following years Uri will come of age and gain formidable knowledge and diverse skills that will make him a genuine polymath and a leading intellectual of that epoch. Among the most important formative experiences will be his captivity by Herod’s administrators,  encounters with Christ and Pontius Pilate, forced labour in the countryside,  and the studies in the famous city of Alexandria. While following the ups and downs of Uri’s destiny the reader will get an extensive and meticulously researched overview of the culture, economy, warfare, politics and everyday life of Ancient Rome and Judea.


Nicolas Poussin, Destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem

The novel has been a tremendous success in Hungary, having gone through more than a dozen editions. The critics lauded its page-turning quality along with the wealth of ideas and the ambitious recreation of historical detail.  I highly recommend reading this interview with György Spiró about the novel as well as this summary of his works. It is great that Captivity will reach a wider audience. However, I have to say that just judging by the description, I would have liked to see his other novel translated, The Kingfisher, which sounds totally insane:

Adopting the same sarcastic voice, he has composed a gigantic novel of nearly 800 pages, a dystopia of the present and future ages comparable to the works of Jonathan Swift or Thomas Pynchon. The Kingfisher of the title is, in fact, a woman by the name of Zsonna Bísztő, whose biography, the main body of the book, is being written by a certain Bollog Shonason who lives in the strange country of Talismania (clearly somewhere in America). The story relates how Zsonna, who was born in the Meagerland (Hungary) of our times, is becoming a victim of an international conspiracy in the course of which she is transformed into the prototype of a woman with three vaginas. Moreover, part of her brain is transplanted in the head of a kingfisher, who manages to escape and finishes her life on the remote island of Hölle, becoming in the process Talismania’s first saint: Shona Bisto. The dark and ironic novel teems with a multitude of frightening and also hilarious subplots.

I want to believe  that the publication of the  tamer Captivity will spark enough interest around the name of this writer to eventually bring forth the English translation of this extravaganza.


Filed under Forthcoming Translations

The Great Untranslated: Tutunamayanlar by Oğuz Atay


When it comes to Turkish literature, we are lamentably deprived. The gaping lacuna is what is considered by many to be the greatest 20th-century literary achievement in Turkey: Oğuz Atay’s experimental, linguistically complex novel of ideas Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected). It has been quite a while since it was put up on the UNESCO site as an important literary work in need of English translation, and, just like Germán Espinosa’s masterpiece The Weaver of Crowns, it still remains unavailable for a host of the prospective readers. Granted, the author’s use of different varieties of Turkish such as the heavily arabicised Ottoman Turkish and the purist, reformed Turkish, the so-called Öztürkçe, renders the job of the translator extremely demanding, but not unfeasible. The conclusive proof of that is the Dutch translation of the novel published four years ago. At the moment it is the only translation of Otay’s book into any other language, so, I guess, we should congratulate the Dutch on having the privilege to read the cult classic.

HetLevenOtayThe plot of the novel focuses primarily on the quest of engineer Turgut Özben to find out the reason for his friend’s suicide. The investigation leads the main character to the array of different texts left by the deceased, and the further  Özben proceeds with his inquiry, the closer he approaches his own radical transformation. If it sounds like something written by Orhan Pamuk, you should not be surprised as Otay has exercised considerable influence on the Nobel Laureate. Within the context of Turkish letters, Otay was a trailblazer whose innovative techniques left a lasting impression on the next generation of writers. The manner in which the story of Özben’s search is presented took the Turkish reader at the time by surprise, which partly explains why Otay’s novel received due recognition much later, already after the writer’s untimely death at the age of 43. As one of the Dutch translators of the novel Hanneke van der Heijden writes:

The literary form of Atay’s novel was not exactly what readers were used to either: the unbridled stream of consciousness, all kinds of short texts in different genres, that cut across the story, such as a poem of 600 lines plus commentary, a chapter of 70 pages, written without a single comma or full stop – it may remind us, the readers of today, of James Joyce, of Nabokov, Virginia Woolf and other western modernist writers – writers Atay was very familiar with. But, as the critic Ahmet Oktay once remarked, the number of Turkish readers that in the beginnings of the seventies had read Ulysses, was no more than ten.

The more pity that most of us who have read Ulysses and seem to be ready for this seminal text of Turkish modernism have to live with our frustration for an unknown period of time. Maybe learning Turkish or Dutch could be a more realistic alternative to waiting for a quality English translation to materialise in the foreseeable future.

Hanneke van der Heijden has her own blog dedicated to Turkish literature. Most of it is in Dutch, but the written version of her talk on the translation of  Tutunamayanlar is available in English. It’s the best article about Otay’s novel in English you will find on the Web, and I urge you to check it out.


Filed under The Great Untranslated

The Great Untranslated: De Zondvloed (The Deluge) by Jeroen Brouwers

DezondvloedWhen you hear “the Great Dutch novel”, what is it that first comes to your mind? Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven? Willem Frederik Hermans’ The Dark Room of Damocles? Or, perhaps, Hugo Claus’ The Sorrow of Belgium? but that would be the Great Flemish Novel, wouldn’t it? Anyway, there is this partially autobiographic novel by Jeroen Brouwers, whose title could be translated as The Flood or The Deluge, that has kept fascinating and repelling the Dutch language readers since it was published in 1988, and, by virtue (or, rather, vice) of being untranslated, has stayed under the radar of the English speaking public. Some of its readers do believe that this novel has all the rights to literary  greatness and that its author should be awarded the Nobel Prize for it. How come, many of you, readers of this blog, have neither heard of this novel, nor about its author? Well, try to find something in English on him, and you’ll be lucky if you dredge up at least a couple of pages worth of useful information. However, based on the few titbits I’ve been able to dig up, I assure you that The Deluge is a worthy candidate for my rubric The Great Untranslated.

The protagonist of the novel is a bibulous, mysanthropic, sexually frustrated writer who at the symbolic age of 33 flees society to live in a ramshackle cabin in the woods. The story of his life is told in flashbacks, and in general lines, it follows the biography of Brouwers himself. We learn about the main character’s childhood in Indonesia at the time of the Second World War and immediately after it. Besides the hardships experienced by his family in a Japanese internment camp, there are happy memories of the time spent in the post-war Balikpapan which is not meant to last as the boy moves to the Netherlands where he is immersed into the suffocating ambiance of regimentation and strict discipline reigning in a boarding school for boys. While at school, the boy conjures up an image of his beloved, a Beatrice of sorts, that he will be trying to encounter most of his adult life. He does meet a woman he thinks he loves; they get married and have two children.  But, eventually, the writer abandons his family that has turned out to be anything but the ideals he has cherished since childhood. Angst-ridden and disillusioned, he becomes a hermit in the woods, drowning his sorrows in gin.

There seems to be nothing striking about the plot, but that is not the main thing in this novel. The Dutch reviewers seem to concur that the imagery and the language are just jaw-dropping. There are also various mythological and classical motifs woven into the fabric of the narrative such as Orpheus’ quest for Eurydice and Dante’s journey through Hell. The narrative itself is not chronological, but jumps between different time frames, and when it comes to reminiscing about things past, Brouwers appears to reach truly Proustian heights.

Returning to the initial question of this post, I cannot promise you that Jeroen Brouwers’ hefty tome is as great as it looks to be based on several secondary sources. You will have to find it out for yourselves. And in order for that to transpire, obviously, this novel should be made available in English. You know, several years ago I would have been very pessimistic on this account, but not anymore. Just recently we have seen the English translations of such perennial preterites as Adam Buenosayres and Prae. Arno Schmidt’s untranslatable Bottom’s Dream, albeit with delay, is for sure to be published by Dalkey Archive at some point, perhaps this year. All these developments give us hope to see The Deluge translated sooner than we might think. Let me know if  any information regarding this becomes available.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Great Untranslated

Forthcoming: Numero Zero, English translation of Eco’s latest novel


Finally, there is some information available on the English translation of Umberto Eco’s new novel. The US edition will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on November 3, 2015. The UK publisher Harvill Secker will release the book two days later. Judging by the preliminary information, the title of the English translation will remain the same as that of the original: Numero Zero. However, the November of 2015 is still pretty far away, and anything can change by that time. The novel’s translator is Richard Dixon, who has also translated Umberto Eco’s penultimate novel The Prague Cemetery. It will be interesting to see the reception of the novel by the English language reader. The Italian response was a tad lukewarm, which is understandable since the events discussed in the novel are too familiar for most of Italians; as a result,  Numero Zero didn’t offer them that thrill of discovery which was definitely present in his other novels. As for myself, I ended up quite liking this small book, which could serve as a perfect introduction to Umberto Eco’s formidable oeuvre as it has all the major themes of the Italian intellectual in homeopathic doses. And you know what, when I come to think of it, I realise that I am rather discombobulated by the zero translation of the title. Is it really impossible to come up with any appropriate equivalent in English? If you think that my variant Zero Issue is lame, you can offer your solutions. The translator of  On Literature Englished it as Dummy Run.

Leave a comment

Filed under Forthcoming Translations

Zero Issue (Numero Zero) by Umberto Eco


Losers, such as autodidacts, always possess knowledge vaster than that of  winners. If you want to win, you have to know one single thing and not to waste your time on knowing everything: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers.

This bitter statement by the main character of Umberto Eco’s new novel refers primarily to himself. He is an extremely well-read loser who failed to get a university degree neglecting the lectures to work on translations from German, a very lucrative language at the time. His subsequent jobs included tutoring, writing for newspapers, editing, reading manuscripts, and ghostwriting. It is the experience in the last activity which helps Colonna (we never learn the protagonist’s first name) to land a well-paid but rather strange job which will turn his life upside down. It is the April of 1992, and the fifty-year old Colonna arrives in Milan to meet a certain Simei who wants him to ghost-write a book titled Tomorrow: Yesterday to be released under Simei’s name. The book in question is supposed to be his memoirs recounting a year of work on a new daily newspaper called Domani (Tomorrow) that will never get published. The sponsor of the doomed project is Vimercate, a rich owner of hotels, nursery homes, TV channels, and tabloids. For the duration of a year, the eccentric tycoon wants to create and maintain a simulacrum of the editorial staff who will produce a dozen of “zero issues” of the newspaper, that is not “real” issues, but just mock-ups not meant for wide circulation. Except for Simei, who has been designated as the editor-in-chief, and Colonna, who will work as his assistant, the newspaper staff are to stay oblivious of the fact that the daily will never be launched. The six editors, five men and one woman, are employed to create sensationalist content that would  predict political and social upheavals as well as claim to reveal shocking truths liable to ruin the reputations of the rich and the powerful . According to Simei, Vimercate’s ultimate goal is to snake his way into the so-called salotto buono, a small circle of  industrialists, politicians, and bankers controlling the economy of Italy. Vimercate will make sure that the dummy issues purporting to unmask the members of this clique will be seen by some of them, which will lead to his admission into their club  in exchange for scrapping the dangerous newspaper. Without much hesitation, Colonna accepts Simei’s proposal and knuckles down to work in the Potemkin village that  passes itself off as the editorial office of Domani. From this point, we follow three major narrative threads: the daily work of the editorial staff (which allows Eco to lampoon the vices of contemporary journalism),  the love story between Colonna and the only female editor of the newspaper called Maia, and the conspiracy theory developed by Bragadoccio, Colonna’s other colleague. The descriptions of heated discussions during editorial meetings sparkle with Swiftian satire, ridiculing the way newspapers and magazines distort facts and create sensations out of nothing. When briefing his subordinates on the modus operandi for breaking news, Simei explains the basic principles of manipulating the available information to achieve the desired effect on the reading public.  A classical example is putting four disparate pieces of news with a common “theme” on the same page to create a fifth news item.  At Simei’s request, Colonna lectures his colleagues on the techniques of writing a retraction as a response to an accusatory letter from a disgruntled reader condemning one of the newspaper’s articles as mendacious. Using the assassination of Julius Caesar as the subject matter of this imaginary correspondence, Colonna composes a retraction which instead of refuting the rogue article contrives to reaffirm its allegations. Once the general policy of the daily has been established, each staff member comes up with various topics for articles, most of which get discarded in the course of editorial meetings. Some of the rejected material includes: the negative influence of the environmental pollution on the size of the penis, the strange longevity of an unpopular pizzeria which might be used by mafia for money-laundering, the scams practised by numerous fake Maltese orders offering knighthood for a considerable remuneration. Maia who is tasked with preparing horoscopes, becomes increasingly upset with the policy of the editor-in-chief, as all her creative ideas are summarily dismissed without much consideration. She finds consolation in the affair with Colonna who persuades her to stay in the team despite Simei’s slights and the unscrupulous ambiance in the office of the newspaper. The love between Colonna and Maia, while being important for propelling the plot, is not the most successful element of the novel. Not that in his previous novels Eco has been especially good at describing romance. The Italian writer’s true might is manifested when it comes to re-visiting seminal historical events, drawing unexpected connections and exposing hidden conspiracies. That is why the most fascinating episodes of the novel are meetings between Colonna and Braggadocio in which the latter gradually entrusts his colleague with a complicated plot he has recently disclosed. Braggadocio is a tragicomic figure whose name, despite sounding Italian, comes from an English word derived from the Italian-sounding name Bragadocchio coined by Edmund Spencer for  a conceited character in Faerie Queene. Driven by compulsive mythomania and probably paranoia, Braggadocio comes up with an outlandish theory regarding the fate of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The journalist is convinced that in 1945 it was Mussolini’s double who was executed, whereas the real dictator managed to escape unscathed to Argentina, a popular destination for many WWII criminals. He shares this discovery with Colonna, supporting his claim by presenting a number of well-known facts glazed with conspiracy-based interpretations. The most macabre evidence of Braggadocio’s theory is Mussolini’s autopsy report, which he extensively quotes and comments upon. As a matter of fact, this symbolic disinterment of Mussolini’s corpse marks a watershed  in the novel, as the narrative becomes more morbid and grotesque, as if the violent and tragic past of Italy began to invade the present and infect it with its horrible diseases. Colonna lends a sympathetic ear to the delirious myth-making of Braggadocio,  perfectly realising that the man must be bonkers. Braggadocio’s paranoid vision acquires maximum complexity when the notorious operation Gladio enters the equation. To tell the truth, I had not known anything about Gladio before reading Umberto Eco’s new novel. There is  a two-and-a-half hour BBC documentary about it, but I didn’t have the serendipity of stumbling upon it prior to the publication of Numero Zero. Gladio used to be a network of stay-behind paramilitary groups secretly formed in the territories of all Western countries after WWII.  The primary function of these troops was to offer armed resistance behind the enemy lines if the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe. These shadow operatives recruited mostly  from right-wing organisations were supervised by the American and British secret services. When the existence of Gladio was revealed after the Cold War, a series of investigations shocked the public by connecting the stay-behinds with terrorist acts against civilian population and functionaries within state institutions who allegedly had used the secret army to effect the so-called strategy of tension. The main goal of this strategy was to demonstrate to people the danger of the rising left and to induce them to ask the government for additional security. One of the key scenes in the novel is Colonna’s and Braggadocio’s visit to the church San Bernardino alle Ossa. The conspiracy-seeking journalist has chosen its famous ossuary as the most appropriate place to tell Colonna about Gladio and its role in a number of violent and mysterious events. The bone-encrusted chapel of San Bernardino becomes a powerful symbol of Italian history. Not just a cupboard with a skeleton or two, but a vast chamber packed with bones and skulls: it will take more than one generation to sort out the multitude of shameful secrets hidden from the public by the powers that be.


Detail of the Ossuary Chapel in San Bernardino alle Ossa

The place was deserted save for a little old woman who was praying  in a pew in the first row with her head between hands. Death’s heads squeezed into high recesses between pilasters, boxes of bones, skulls arranged in the shape of the cross set into a mosaic of whitish stones which also were bones, perhaps fragments of vertebral columns, articular joints, clavicles, sterna, scapulae, coccyges, carpi and metacarpi, patellae, tarsi, tali, who knows? Bone edifices rose everywhere leading the eye vertically to a Tiepolesque vault; luminous and cheerful,  it was enveloped by pink and creamy clouds with angels and triumphant souls hovering in between. On the horizontal shelf above the old barred door skulls with gaping eye-sockets were aligned like porcelain jars in apothecary cabinets. In the recesses level with visitors, protected by a wide-mesh grille through which it was possible to slip fingers, the bones and skulls were polished and shiny like the feet of St. Peter’s statue in Rome through the centuries-old touch of either devout or necrophiliac hands. There were approximately a thousand skulls, at least, and as for smaller bones, it was impossible to count them; on the pilasters stood out monograms of Christ composed of tibia which seemed to have been removed from the Jolly Rogers of the Tortuga pirates. “These are not only the bones of lepers”, Braggadocio told me as if there was nothing more beautiful in the world. “They are skeletons coming from other burials in the vicinity, especially the corpses of convicts, patients who died in the Brolo hospital, the beheaded, prisoners who died in jails, probably also thieves or brigands who came to die in the church because they didn’t have another place where they could bite the dust in peace — The Verziere was a quarter with awful reputation. This old woman makes me laugh: she is here to pray as though it was the sepulchre of a saint with holy relics, whereas these are remains of rogues, bandits, damned souls. And yet the old monks were more compassionate than the buriers and exhumers of Mussolini, just look at the care, at the love for art (and also the cynicism, who would deny it?)  with which they arranged these skeletal remains as if they were Byzantine mosaics. The little old woman is seduced by these images of death, mistaking them for images of holiness;  I won’t be able to show anymore where exactly, but beneath this altar it should be possible to see the half-mummified body of a girl who during the night of the dead, they say, comes out with other skeletons to perform her danse macabre.

Not unlike the monks of San Bernardino, Braggadocio creates a mosaic of great conspiracy, arranging facts, half-truths, speculations, and downright fantasies into an intricate pattern. I am not going to examine in detail this complex edifice populated by politicians, ecclesiastics, war criminals, terrorists, law-enforcement officers, mafiosi, Freemasons, and other noteworthy representatives of Italian society. Braggadocio thinks he has now enough material to publish it in twelve installments in all the twelve zero issues of Domani. We may find it rather amusing: a make-believe conspiracy to be revealed in a make-believe newspaper. However, a seasoned reader of Eco’s writing by now should have realised that a pandora’s box of real consequences is about to be opened, for quite often reality is far more unbelievable than any penny dreadful. Zero Issue was supposed to be Eco’s fourth novel. He started writing it after The Island of the Day Before was published, but at some point he abandoned it and wrote Baudolino instead. In his collection of essays On Literature Umberto Eco reveals to us that one of the reasons he shelved Zero Issue was that its characters were too similar to the ones featured in Foucault’s Pendulum. No doubt about that.  This slim novel could easily become one of the subplots of the Italian writer’s sprawling second book. Colonna cannot help but remind us of Casaubon, and the editorial staff working on the sensationalist newspaper immediately brings to mind the employees of the publishing houses Garamond and Manuzio, who, for their own amusement, concoct a plan of world domination. Nevertheless, there is a substantial difference between the two novels. The main message of Foucault’s Pendulum is an admonition against looking for connections where there are none. In case of Zero Issue, I would argue, this idea is less prominent, although it is obviously there; suffice it to look at the epigraph by E. M. Forster: “Only connect!”  In his last novel, Eco wants to alert us to the fact how inured we have become to truly outrageous  events through our overexposure to the media. The blasé consumer of news regards a disclosure which in another time and place would lead to mass riots and perhaps a revolution as just another sensation and forgets it the next day because there are always more to come.

Finally, if anyone would like to read up on the events mentioned in the novel while waiting for the English translation, here is a list of recommended literature:

Daniele, Ganser. NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe .

Dickie, John. Blood Brotherhoods: A History of Italy’’s Three Mafias.

Foot, John. Milan since the Miracle.

Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988.

Hibberd, Matthew. The Media in Italy.

Hibbert, Christopher.  Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce.

Luzzato, Sergio.  The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy.

Willan, Philip. Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy.


Filed under Reviews

Submission (Soumission) by Michel Houellebecq


The European civilisation subjugated and humiliated by the onslaught of Islamist hordes, the forced conversions, the public executions in the squares, the burning of “profane” books,  all this to the accompaniment of a plangent summons of a muezzin up in the minaret of a gigantic mosque erected on the site of the torn-down Notre Dame de Paris… If this is how you imagine the new novel by Michel Houellebecq, my advice is: spare the money and buy some science fiction dystopia dealing with the subject instead. I guess there should be something on the market these days. At the end of the day, Submission is not so much about the dreaded islamisation of Europe, as it is about the problem of getting laid for the man on the wrong side of forty. Just like the rest of Houellebecq’s works, n’est-ce pas?

Submission  is a breezy read and ideal fodder for the hungover reviewer recuperating from a spell of overindulgency during the Christmas and New Year holidays. What I like about Houellebecq is that his books don’t send me to the dictionary too often, a fancy phrase or an abstruse word is not the hallmark of his rather pedestrian writing style. It’s opinions, observations, and once again opinions, which matter the most when one opens any of his books.

To get it out of my system from the very outset, I will allow myself the luxury of alluding to Karl Marx’s oft-quoted statement about historical facts occurring the first time as tragedy, and the second as farce. In case of Houellebecq, there is a farce at the beginning, and genuine ennui the second time. Yes, he does it again. In his new novel he rips off whole sentences (sometimes with minor alterations) from French Wikipedia, just the way he did in his Prix Goncourt winning The Map and the Territory . You surely must remember the debate about his borrowings from the free encyclopedia in the previous novel. This time he steals from the article about the Greek mythological prophet Casandra. Maybe there is more, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t bother to check further. With his Submission,  Houellebecq seems to have fully (excuse the awful pun) submitted to the cliché-ridden concept of what a typical Houellebecq novel should be like. He ticks all the boxes, knowing quite well, that it is exactly what his numerous readers crave for.

The novel is set in 2022. The protagonist of Submission is a 44-year old  professor of literature at Sorbonne called François. He is a specialist in K. J. Huysmans, giving lectures on 19th century French literature and occasionally publishing articles in the scholarly magazine Journal des dix-neuviémistes. After a succession of various affairs with the female students at the university (first as a fellow-student, then as an instructor)  he finds his ability to experience sexual pleasure on the wane  and starts spending more time masturbating to online pornography. He is bitter, callous, cynical, frustrated, a bit of a racist, quite a lot of a misogynist, … you name it.

François’s life radically changes after the Muslim candidate Mohammed Ben Abbes is elected president of France. This becomes possible because the Socialist Party, The Union for a Popular Movement and The Union of Democrats and Independents  enter into a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood (an imaginary party of French Muslims) to prevent the National Front from winning the elections. As a result of the agreement between the members of the coalition, François Bayrout (the current leader of the Democratic Movement in France) is appointed prime minister. From the very beginning it becomes apparent that he has no political weight of his own, his main role being to unconditionally support the new policy of the Muslim president. What is noteworthy, is that the Muslim Brotherhood is not so much interested in the economy of the country as in the demographics and education. The new government carries out major reforms in public schools and state universities. As a result, the main university in France gets renamed as the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne and is lavishly funded by the petrodollars of Saudi Arabia. Women lecturers are summarily dismissed, and all the female students have to wear the veil. As you can imagine, such a turn of events is unlikely to rejoice the middle-aged womanising academic. Of course, these changes are just part of the major political and cultural overhaul initiated by the new authorities. Being moderate Muslims, the Brotherhood do not do anything rash, at least not yet. The changes in the society are gradual, even subtle, but still quite considerable already in the first month of Mohammed Ben Abbes’ tenure.

François spends the turbulent change of the regime away from the rioting Paris in the town of Martel (ironically enough, near the site of the historic Battle of Tour in which the Muslim invasion of Europe was checked in 732) most of the time cut off from any information about what is going on in the capital. When he finally returns to Paris, it is the noticeable alterations in the female fashion which alert him to the fact that France is becoming a different country:

And the female clothes had changed; I felt it immediately, although failing to analyse this transformation. The number of Islamic veils had hardly increased; it wasn’t that, and it took me almost an hour of wandering to grasp all at once what had changed: all the women were wearing trousers. The detection of women’s thighs, the mental projection reconstructing the pussy at their crossing, the process whose power of excitement is directly proportional to the length of the naked legs: all this was in me so much involuntarily, automatic, genetic as it were, that I had not become aware of the fact immediately, but the evidence was there, dresses and skirts had disappeared. A new garment had also become widespread: a kind of long cotton blouse reaching the mid-thigh, which killed all the objective interest in skintight trousers certain women could have eventually worn. As for shorts, they were obviously out of the question. The contemplation of the female ass, a small dreamy consolation, had also become impossible.

Upon his return to Paris, François also learns that as a non-Muslim he has lost his position at the university. This might have been a cause for serious financial concern if the Saudi funding had not provided him with a pension of  3,472 Euros a month. For his colleagues who have chosen to convert so that they can teach at the new university, the situation has turned into something straight from One Thousand and One Nights: they start receiving a whopping 10,000-Euro monthly salary as well obtaining beautiful young wives. As for François, his chances of finding a  female companion are rather low at this point. The only mistress pool available to him, i. e. the female university students, has become inaccessible after his retirement. He has to resort to an Internet escort service after his Jewish girlfriend has left France for Israel — understandably enough, the prospect of living in a country ruled by Muslims has triggered a wave of Jewish emigration.

When François comes into rich inheritance left by his father, he realises that he does not have to work for a living any more. But the financial comfort and the opportunity to use prostitutes cannot completely satisfy the retired professor, as there is still smouldering need for scholarly accomplishment and genuine female interest. The former suddenly becomes possible thanks to the commission by the renowned Bibliothèque de la Pléiade to supervise the publication of the annotated collected works of Huysmans within the series. François jumps on the opportunity and starts preparing notes and the preface to this edition. While he is pursuing the task, we learn quite a lot about this writer and his life. One of the most significant moments in Huysmans’ biography is his sudden conversion to Catholicism which he later fictionalised in the second volume of the Durtal tetralogy. We cannot help but start realising that by revisiting Huysmans’ life and work in his editorial endeavour, François might be also on his way to conversion, although in his case it will not be Catholicism, that’s for sure.

When François pays a visit to the president of the Islamic University of Paris-Sorbonne, a Belgian convert called Robert Rediger, he accidentally runs into his teenage wife Aisha domestically dressed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She is his second wife. Later he meets the first one, the forty-year old Malika who cooks exceptionally delicious puffed pastry. The physical merits of one wife and  the culinary skills of the other make a lasting impression on the guest.  During their conversation, Redeger provides a host of arguments in favour of  Islam, even falling back on the major discoveries in astronomy and physics that, in his opinion, support the fact of the existence of the unique God. When the meeting is over, the president  gives François his Ten Questions about Islam, a brief overview of the major principles of the religion. It is not surprising that, when later reading the little book,  the main character finds the chapter discussing polygamy particularly interesting . The sight of the fifteen-year old Aisha with a shock of black hair, wearing jeans and a T-shirt is a strong argument that cannot be brushed aside easily. When the preface and the explanatory notes to the new edition of Huysmans’ works are finished, François receives a proposal to return to the university. He realises that at this point he will have to make one of the most important choices in his life.

Map of Eurabia

Map of Eurabia

The personal drama of François develops on the background of important political transformations as the European Union slowly but surely starts accepting Muslim states into its fold. The first acceding countries are Morocco, Algeria, Turkey and Tunisia. Egypt and Lebanon are to join them in the near future. There have also been some initial contacts with Libya and Syria. One doesn’t need to have an exceptional geopolitical acumen to predict that at this rate in one generation Europe as we know it will cease to exist and will be transformed into a new Caliphate. In order to read what this political formation might be like, you will have to wait for Vladimir Sorokin’s Telluria to be translated. Submission does not look that far into the development of our civilisation. Which is just as well, because, when it comes to vivid descriptions of a dystopian future, Houellebecq is not the best author to turn to. In this novel the French writer manages to sum up some of the topical problems facing the European Union and to give scathing commentary on contemporary French politics. Whether one has to read a whole novel for that, is up for you to decide. Politics aside, Submission provides a convenient excursus into the life and works of K. J. Huysmans, convincingly making case for reading more of this writer. There are also interesting references to the poet Charles Pierre Péguy and his long Christian poem Eve which bemoans the decline and dissolution of humanity. The readers belonging  to the academia will find a lot of nudging references to their internal problems and insecurities. And, surely, there are some pithy observations that are bound to be quoted by the media for the months to come, one of which is definitely the following:

It is an idea that I would hesitate to expose before my coreligionists, for they, perhaps, will consider it a bit blasphemous, but for me there is a relation between the absolute submission of the woman to man, such as described in Story of O, and the submission of man to God, such as envisaged by Islam.

HouellebecqCharlie1The publication of the novel coincided with the horrible massacre at Charlie Hebdo. The latest issue of the magazine featured a caricature of Houellebecq on its cover. As you might remember, in my post about the forthcoming publication of Submission, I expressed hope that it would not provoke aggression against the author on the part of Muslim radicals. Now that I have read the book, I do not think it will be the case. The novel turned out by far more tame than I could have expected. Most of the readers who have bought it anticipating  loud confrontational statements against Islam will  be most probably disappointed. Very indicative of this  distanced attitude is Houellebecq’s recent interview to The Paris Review, in which he says:

But I am not an intellectual. I don’t take sides, I defend no regime. I deny all responsibility, I claim utter irresponsibility—except when I discuss literature in my novels, then I am engaged as a literary critic. But essays are what change the world.

Indeed, when acting  as a literary critic through the main character, Houellebecq shows his best in the novel. That is when the lukewarmness disappears, and he is utterly engrossed in the subject. Submission had hit the first place on the French Amazon bestseller list already two weeks prior to its publication and at the time of writing this review is firmly established in this position. It would be great if the works of J. K. Huysmans tangentially benefited from the predictable roaring success of Houellebecq’s admonition  to Europe.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Je suis Charlie


Leave a comment

January 7, 2015 · 4:52 pm