Michel Houellebecq Death and the Atheist

French author Michel Houellebecq is a controversial visionary. His new novel “Submission,” which takes place in an Islamic France of the near future, foresaw the bloody terrorist attacks in Paris.
The unbearableness of being Michel Houellebecq.

Michel Houellebecq is one of France's most important, and controversial, contemporary writers. His first novel, "Whatever," was published in 1994, but it was his 1998 novel – translated as "The Elemenatary Particles" in the U.S. – that brought him international acclaim. His fifth novel, "The Map and the Territory," won the 2010 Prix Goncourt. Iris Radisch sat down with the author at a literature festival in Cologne recently to talk about his views on radicalism, France and facing death without the comfort of religion.


Die Zeit: Was it an omen that the attack on Charlie Hebdo happened exactly on the day your novel was released?

Michel Houellebecq: I don’t believe it was a sign. It was strange. I heard around midday that there were a few dead at Charlie Hebdo. But I didn’t think at all that my friend Bernard Maris could be among the dead. He wrote a business column for the magazine, which never discusses Islam. I immediately called him to see if everything was fine without being particularly worried. Around 4pm I found out he was dead.

You don’t see a connection between the attack and your novel?

No. What hit me hardest was the death of Bernard Maris.

How did you feel that day?

At first I was incredibly angry. And sad, very sad.

You could be mistaken for a clairvoyant. Your novel has bloody attacks and a gruesome civil war in Paris.

Yes, there’s a small war in my novel. It anticipated the civil war that’s just beginning in France.

You expect further radicalization in France?

Most definitely. There could also be people like (Norwegian far-right mass murderer) Anders Breivik in France. But you always need two sides for a war. You need people like Breivik or paramilitary forces on one side and a state without strong legal rights anymore on the other. Now there was an attack on a kosher supermarket, but tomorrow it could also be a Muslim shop.

How do you explain that there are civil war-like conditions in Europe once again?

First of all, there’s the Palestine conflict, which is like an abscess constantly creating hatred. Every time this conflict gets worse, you immediately feel it in France. Moreover, Muslims have a harder time than Catholics to fit into a secular society. An atheist for them is basically an impossibility. They live here in a world that they find repulsive and threatens their values.

It clearly pleases you to pack in the entire modern era.

I’m sorry if I’m a bit pedantic here, but Auguste Comte already had this idea. He predicted the age of revolution and the Enlightenment would be followed by a new religious age. I’ve always agreed with this thesis. A society without religion is unable to survive. Laicism, rationalism and the Enlightenment, which is based on the abandonment of faith, have no future. You’ll find in many of my novels the outlines of a new religion.

Every time I go to a funeral, I feel that the atheism of our societies has become unbearable. Michel Houellebecq

You recommend we leave the Enlightenment behind us?

I don’t know, I see so many people, for whom that’s not enough, who are suffering. Every time I go to a funeral, I feel that the atheism of our societies has become unbearable.

Death is unbearable without faith?

No, it is unbearable.

What will become of France in ten years?

That’s not yet clear. France is a special case in Europe. It’s rather depressed, but has good demographics. That might be a contradiction, but comes from some sort of will to survive.

Is France more depressive than other countries?

Yes, in particular it has more contempt for its politicians than in any other European country. And that is justified. Marine Le Pen is profiting from that. And it’s frightening.

Are you really against her far-right Front National?

I don’t really care about it. It sweeps up all discontents regardless of what they are. Now they’re suddenly worried about the threat of Islamism. That’s completely new.

Where does France’s contempt for politics come from?

The French don’t take their politicians seriously. When Hitler came to power, they said: ah, let him talk, he’ll soon calm down. A German has a hard time understanding the French. They’ve never believed in Europe. They’re not even interested in it.

But they’re interested in reviving the Latin empire. In your novel, the Islamic President Ben Abbes pursues this geopolitical project by bringing the Arab Mediterranean countries into the European Union. The Mediterranean Union, which also excited former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is an old French imperial idea.

It really does appeal to the French, they wouldn’t have to speak English anymore, which they despise.

What’s wrong with the Brussels idea of Europe?

It doesn’t have a clear concept. That is, maybe the Germans know what it is, but the French don’t. They don’t even know what countries actually belong to it. They don’t know what good the euro is.

Is Germany currently disliked in France?

I can assure you, there is no strong anti-German sentiment in France. You can still vacation in France. But the French believe that the Germans do everything better than they do. They have a wonderful public dialog, they have no unemployment, they make better cars and play better soccer than we do.

How do you like Germany?

I don’t know. There are big differences: the birth rate, the European feel, the lack of a national front – the (anti-Islam movement) Pegida movement doesn’t appear at all comparable to me. That’s a lot.

In Germany you’re already being called the new Sartre. What do you think about that?

I don’t think Sartre was a very good writer.

He tapped the nerve of the times, was the author of his age.

I accept the compliment. But unlike Sartre, I don’t tell anyone what they should do.



This interview first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]