Holidays in the Sun
Michel Houellebecq’s new novel is brilliant and hard to ignore.
by Michel Houellebecq
Translated by Frank Wynne
London: William Heinemann, 2002
Michel Houellebecq is no stranger to controversy. His last novel, Les Particules
élémentaires, outraged the French Left by proposing that the liberal revolutions
of the 60s had not only failed, but left society worse off, and that the only
solution would be to clone a new human species in a state of permanent orgasm.
The release of his latest novel, Platform, was accompanied by a series
of lawsuits filed by four Muslim groups after the author referred to Islam as
the “dumbest religion” in an interview. The charge was “inciting racial hatred,”
which Houellebecq vehemently denied, claiming, “I have never displayed the least
contempt for Muslims. However, I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.”
Houellebecq proclaimed that it was his right as an author to criticize monotheistic
religions, qualifying his statements by claiming the Koran was inferior to the
Bible in terms of literary merit. “In literary terms, the Bible has several authors,
some good and some as bad as crap. The Koran has only one author and its overall
style is mediocre,” he said, adding “the Bible at least is beautifully written
because the Jews have a heck of a literary talent.”
France’s national Arabic newspaper published a photograph of a drunken, disheveled
Houellebecq with the headline “This Man Hates You.” No fatwas were issued this
time around, but Salman Rushdie did come to Houellebecq’s defense, writing in
The Guardian, “Platform is a good novel and Houellebecq is a fine writer who writes
for serious reasons and neither he nor his book deserves to be tarred and feathered.”
Although he was eventually cleared of the charges, Houellebecq claims that he’ll
never again publish a book or give an interview because “it’s too much trouble.”
Rushdie is right. Houellebecq is a great writer. While Platform may not be his
best novel, it certainly builds on the foundation he laid with his previous works.
The idea behind Platform concerns “the death of the West.” For Houellebecq,
competitive capitalism has resulted in our inability to relate and satisfy one
another sexually. On the other side of the world, reasons Houellebecq, “you have
several billion people who have nothing, who are starving, who die young, who
live in conditions unfit for human habitation and who have nothing left to sell
except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality.” Seen from this light, the
Leftist idea that sex tourism is exploitative seems absurd, as both parties are
effectively satisfying their human needs. A simple idea? It could be, but not
everyone agrees. And there are those who express dissent using weapons more dangerous
than the rhetoric of politically correct Westerners.
Michel, the novel’s anti-hero, is a depressingly mediocre individual, a French
middle-aged single civil servant whose interests don’t extend beyond sex and television.
When his despised father is murdered by the Muslim brother of his housemaid, with
whom he’d been having an affair, Michel uses his inheritance to secure a place
on a package tour to Thailand. On holiday, Michel spends much of his time drinking
and buying sex. He repeatedly fails to connect in any meaningful way with his
tourist peers, despite the advances of Valérie, a beautiful young woman. Michel
and Valérie eventually connect upon their return to Paris and fall in love.
It turns out that Valérie works as an executive in the tourist industry. Despite
her success, the popularity of the package tour is waning. She and her colleagues
are unable to figure out why. One night, on a business trip to Cuba, Michel gets
drunk and offers his opinion: What Europeans really want when they go on vacation
isn’t just a holiday in some exotic locale, but bargain sex with the fetishized
Other in which they’re intimate with the locals, and more than just tourists.
When Valérie’s agency decides to put Michel’s theory into action by offering “Aphrodite”
package tours, inviting local male and female prostitutes to ply their trades
at third-world beach resorts, the results are stunning. The once-empty resorts
are suddenly overflowing with horny Germans, Spanish, French and Italians. Near
the end of the novel, Valérie and Michel decide to personally sample the nectar
of their successful creation, booking a free vacation at one of Valerie’s Thai
Rich, happy, successful, in love, Michel and Valerie seem to have it all. They
decide to relocate there permanently, to spend the rest of their lives in this
exotic paradise. Then Muslim extremists blow up the resort, killing most of the
vacationers, including Valérie.
At the end of the novel, we find Michel where we found him at the beginning: alone.
He returns to Thailand to spend the rest of his days beneath the sun, reminiscing
on the happiness he briefly possessed. He gives up on life, and Michel’s descriptions
of his loss are devastating: “Every time I heard that a Palestinian terrorist,
child, or pregnant woman had been gunned down on the Gaza Strip, I felt a quiver
of enthusiasm that it meant one less Muslim.”
While that passage was sited in the court proceedings against Houelle-becq, as
well as in several recent articles as an example of his alleged racism, it’s important
to note that on the next to the last page of the novel he writes the following:
“For the West, I do not feel hatred; at most I feel a great contempt. I know only
that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism and death. We have
created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live; and what’s
more, we continue to export it.”
In the wake of his ambiguous message and the scandal it has provoked in the French
media, the most overlooked feature of Houellebecq’s writing is his humanism. In
addition to being cited as a racist, he is frequently accused of being a misogynist,
as his female characters often end up dead, damaged or reduced to sexual objects.
But what his critics ignore is the fact that his female characters are equal to
his male characters intellectually, sexually and emotionally. This is a very
rare accomplishment for any male author.
What’s more, Platform gives voice to the plight of the mediocre and selfish
middle-class alienated figure who has nothing to offer society, and is, for all
intents and purposes, thought to be useless. What makes Houellebecq’s ordinary
characters so extraordinary is their alarming awareness, their consciousness of
their own painful situation combined with the ability to endure it.
Despite all the controversy surrounding his work, Houellebecq is very much grounded
in a proud French literary tradition. The bleak perspective found in his books
is reminiscent of Baudelaire and Sartre, although the writer he calls to mind
repeatedly is Céline, whose Journey to the End of the Night was deemed “nihilistic”
by his contemporaries, an adjective that has also been applied to Houellebecq.
Like Céline more than half a century ago, much has been made of Houelle-becq’s
seemingly outrageous behavior in the French media, which is curious considering
that he is writing in the language of the country that also gave us the “death
of the author” and the “society of the spectacle.”
“I seem to have a gift for insults and provocation,” he once said to an interviewer.
“It adds a certain spice to my novels. It’s quite humorous, no?”
Houellebecq’s dirtiest transgression isn’t his excessive sex scenes, nor his characters’
racist diatribes. Rather, it’s the simple fact that he makes us laugh at things
we’re not supposed to laugh at. In penning such memorable lines as, “Intellectually,
I could manage to feel a certain attraction to Muslim vaginas,” Houellebecq smears
shit all over the politically correct reality we’ve been conditioned to accept.
Whether one accepts the view that Houellebecq is too naive to realize how shocking
his frankness sounds aloud, or that he’s merely a provocateur who gets off on
using a not-so-subtle rhetoric, what’s certain is that by forging his own platform
instead of regurgitating any of the predictable political positions, Houellebecq
has secured a place for himself as one of the most important French novelist of
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