Michel Houellebecq – the world’s most famous contemporary French author – reflects on familiar topics of politics and power in his highly anticipated eighth novel Annihilate (Annihilate), released on Friday. But the 65-year-old also makes time for love and family ties.
A large first edition of 300,000 copies will be released in bookstores on January 7 – two years after Houellebecq’s novel Serotonin seemed to foresee the movement of yellow vests and seven years to the day since the terrorist attacks of Charlie Hebdo.
Simple coincidence perhaps, but Houellebecq is no stranger to provocation.
His best-selling novel Submission was due out January 7, 2015. It tells the story of the Sharia law imposed in France following the victory of a Muslim who beat a real French politician Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections of 2022.
Now that 2022 is upon us, Le Pen is a real contender in the April polls, and she could advance to the second round. But so far there are no Muslim candidates running.
Nevertheless, fans of Houellebecq and critics of his work like to present him as a sort of social barometer, even a visionary outright.
The vision in Annihilate is, on the whole, gloomy on the political front but with signs of consolation on the family side.
Literary critic Eugénie Bastié praised a “poignant, depressing and tender novel” which speaks of death and love as a couple.
Online site Mediapart took on a very different tone, however, claiming that Houellebecq’s writing was “on his last legs”.
Houellebecq, whose work has been translated into more than 40 languages, specializes in the depressive white male anti-hero who struggles to live in a world that is changing a little too quickly.
Its last protagonist is called Paul Raison, a senior official at the Ministry of Finance.
the 730 page book weaves with the melancholy of the human condition, with many of Houellebecq’s usual themes: the couple who only share 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 the Minister of the Economy Bruno Juge – who looks more than a passenger to the outgoing Minister of the Economy Bruno Le Maire.
Life and death
In this context of Parisian politics and global cyberterrorism, the book turns into a more metaphysical meditation, tackling the heavy subjects of illness, death, the end of life, and finally the meaning of life in a liberal society. which has lost much of its social glue.
“The rift 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 draws closer to his father, now in a vegetative state following a stroke, on nightmarish visits to nursing homes. .
“Houellebecq finally drops the mask of provocation and cynicism to show an empathetic face”, write Bernard Lehut and Aymeric Parthonnaud on RTL online.
“Annihilate is of course a funeral song 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 his more recent characters.
“They are more ordinary, more just 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 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 not to have bad people at all.”
However, there is one villainous and unrecoverable character in the novel – and she just happens to be a reporter.
Plunge into nothingness
The title of the novel Annihilate understands the word nothing, meaning “nothing”.
While Novak-Lechevalier says that there is never only one face to a book by Houellebecq, his latest book partly describes “the terrifying plunge into nothingness of a breathless Western world”.
“The last part of the book is to face disease, pain and death,” she concludes. “And he’s not calling for resistance to help an evil-haunted society survive.”
We may be on the brink, but “there is a counter-offensive allowing the characters to find what matters before the inevitable catastrophe”.
It’s not exactly cheerful, but it’s milder on nihilism.
“It may make me sound like an old fool, but the underlying purpose of my novels has always been make people laugh and cry, said Houellebecq The world.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do in people. If I can’t do it, 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, awarded a 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-racist groups have taken legal action, although the charges were ultimately dropped.
In one essay for an american magazine in 2019 he hailed Donald Trump as a “good president” for his unconventional diplomacy and his 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”.