French bad boy author Houellebecq makes room for love in a gritty thriller

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Michel Houellebecq – the world’s most famous contemporary French author – returns to familiar topics of politics and power in his highly anticipated eighth novel Annihilate (annihilate), released on Friday. But the 65-year-old is also making time for love and family bonding.

A large first print run of 300,000 copies will be released in bookstores on January 7, two years after Houellebecq’s novel Serotonin seemed to anticipate the Yellow Vest movement and seven years to the day since the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks.

Mere coincidence perhaps, but Houellebecq is no stranger to provocation.

Her best-selling novel Submission was due to be released on January 7, 2015. It tells the story of the imposition of Sharia in France following the victory of a Muslim who defeated French politician Marine Le Pen in the 2022 presidential elections.

Now that 2022 is upon us, far-right Le Pen is a real candidate in the April election, and she could qualify for the second round. But so far, no Muslim candidate is in the running.

Nonetheless, fans of Houellebecq and critics of his work like to portray him as something of a social barometer, if not an outright visionary.

The vision in annihilate is, generally speaking, gloomy on the political front but with signs of comfort on the family side.

Literary critic Eugénie Bastié hailed a “poignant, depressing and tender novel” which speaks of death and love as a couple.

online website Mediapart took a very different tone, however, saying that Houellebecq’s writing was “breathless”.


Political thriller

Houellebecq, whose work has been translated into over 40 languages, specializes in the depressed white male antihero struggling to live in a world that is changing a little too quickly.

Its latest protagonist is called Paul Raison, a senior official at the Ministry of Finance.

The 730-page book is woven from the melancholy of the human condition, with many of Houellebecq’s usual themes: the couple who share only loneliness, sexual misery, existential emptiness, death, terrorism and political intrigue. .

It begins as a political cybersecurity thriller, set during a fictional presidential election campaign in 2027, with security experts trying to track down a mysterious terrorist group that has hacked into government computer systems.

One of the group’s videos features the execution of Economy Minister Bruno Juge – who looks more like current Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire.

President Emmanuel Macron appears to feature in the plot, but is not mentioned by name like Le Pen and incendiary 2022 candidate Eric Zemmour.

Life and death

In this context of Parisian politics and global cyberterrorism, the book turns into a more metaphysical meditation, tackling the weighty subjects of illness, death, end of life and, ultimately, the meaning of life in a society. liberal which has lost much of its social cement.

The France of 2027 is grim, plagued by tensions caused by inequality and the steady decline of rural communities – a theme explored by Houellebecq in Serotonin.

“The gap between the ruling classes and the population has reached unprecedented levels”, comments the narrator.

The second part of the book focuses on family matters. Reason comes to recognize his wife’s courage and beauty later in life and grows closer to his father, now in a vegetative state from a stroke, during nightmarish visits to nursing homes.

“Houellebecq finally drops the mask of provocation and cynicism to show an empathetic face,” wrote Bernard Lehut and Aymeric Parthonnaud on RTL online.

Annihilate is of course a dirge but illuminated by love and the possibility of happiness,” they add in a nod to Houellebecq’s 2005 novel the possibility of an island.

More human characters

Happiness is a big word in the often nihilistic universe of Houellebecq.

Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, author of a book on Houllebecq, nevertheless recognizes a difference in her most recent characters.

“They’re more ordinary, more simply human than usual,” she said. Point magazine.

“They are above all surrounded by an extraordinary benevolence, which ends up characterizing the relations they maintain between them.”

In a rare media interview last week, Houellebecq defended himself from showing this softer side.

“You don’t have to celebrate evil to be a good writer,” he said. The world. “There are very few bad people in Annihilate and I’m happy with it.

“The ultimate triumph would be to have no bad people at all.”

However, there is a villainous and irredeemable character in the novel – and she happens to be a journalist.

Houellebecq has been translated into more than 40 languages. Philippe Matsas / Flammarion

Dive into nothingness

The title of the novel Annihilate understand the word nil, meaning “nothingness”.

If Novak-Lechevalier says that there is only one facet in a book by Houellebecq, his latest book describes in part “the terrifying plunge into nothingness of a breathless Western world”.

“The last part of the book is about looking sickness, pain and death in the face,” she concludes. “And he makes no appeal to resistance to help a society, haunted by evil, to survive.”

We may be on the edge of the abyss, but “there is a counter-offensive allowing the characters to find the essential before the inevitable catastrophe”.

It’s not exactly joyful, but it’s softer on the nihilism.

“It may make me look like an old fart, but the underlying purpose of my novels has always been to make people laugh and cry,” Houellebecq said. The world.

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to elicit in people. If I can’t, I’m not happy.

Love it, hate it

Not everyone will laugh, cry, or even pick up the book.

Winner of the Goncourt Prize in 2010, decorated with the Legion of Honor in 2019, Houellebecq is a controversial figure in France.

During an interview in 2001 to promote his novel Platform — in which he seemed to condone sex tourism and Islamophobia — Houellebecq called Islam “the dumbest religion.”

A number of anti-racism groups sued, although the charges were eventually dropped.

In an essay for a US magazine in 2019, he hailed Donald Trump as a “good president” for his unconventional diplomacy and hostility to free trade.

He also said that Europe was “just a stupid idea that gradually turned into a bad dream, from which we will eventually wake up”.

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