Houellebecq, Camus and the Arabs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 2 12:05:26 MDT 2003

The insolent art of Michel Houellebecq

New Yorker Magazine, Issue dated 2003-07-07

If Houellebecq is, on the evidence of “The Elementary Particles,” the 
most potentially weighty French novelist to emerge since Tournier—and 
the wait has been long, and therefore overpraise understandable—his 
third novel, “Platform” (translated by Frank Wynne; Knopf; $25), opens 
with a nod in an earlier direction. No French writer could begin a novel 
“Father died last year” without specifically invoking Camus’s “The 
Stranger.” Houellebecq’s narrator is called Renault, perhaps hinting 
that such a man has become a mere cog in a mechanized society; but the 
name also chimes with Meursault, Camus’s narrator. And for a clincher: 
Renault’s father has been sleeping with his North African cleaner, 
Aïcha, whose brother beats the old man to death. When the son is brought 
face to face with his father’s murderer, he reflects, “If I had had a 
gun, I would have shot him without a second thought. Killing that little 
shit . . . seemed to me a morally neutral act.” Cut to Meursault’s 
gunning down of the Arab on the beach in Algiers, and his similar moral 
indifference to the act.


The sense of Houellebecq’s being a clever man who is a less than clever 
novelist obtrudes most in the novel’s dealings with Islam. Structurally, 
the function of what Michel calls the “absurd religion” appears to be to 
deliver, at the end, an extreme and murderous disapproval of the happy 
sex tourists. Its running presence, however, consists in a trio of 
outbursts. The first is from Aïcha, who launches unasked into a 
denunciation of her Mecca-stupefied father and her useless brothers 
(“They get blind drunk on pastis and all the while they strut around 
pretending to be the guardians of the one true faith, and they treat me 
like a slut because I prefer to go out and work rather than marry some 
stupid bastard like them”). Next, there is an Egyptian once encountered 
by Michel in the Valley of the Kings, an immensely cultivated and 
intelligent genetic engineer, for whom Muslims are “the losers of the 
Sahara” and Islam a religion born among “filthy Bedouin” who did nothing 
but “bugger their camels.” Then, there is a Jordanian banker met in 
Bangkok, who in the course of a general denunciation points out that the 
sexual paradise promised to Islamic martyrs is much more cheaply 
obtainable in any hotel massage parlor. Extraordinary that three casual 
meetings on three different continents should turn up three vociferous 
Arab Islam-despisers who disappear from the narrative immediately their 
work is done. This isn’t so much an author with his thumb on the scales 
as one clambering into the weighing pan and doing a tap dance. 
(Book-chat parenthesis: Houellebecq told Lire that his mother had become 
a Muslim, adding, “I can’t bear Islam.”)

full: http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/?030707crbo_books


 From John Hess's review of a Camus biography in the December 1998 
Monthly Review:

The New York Times Book Review summarized Todd's Albert Camus: A Life as 
a "biography of the near-proletarian from Algeria who reached the top of 
the literary pole in Paris, then fell silent when he could not defend 
the fashionable Stalinism of the 1950s." To which a knowledgeable French 
reader might reply, quelle neo-connerie!

To begin with, Camus never fell silent, expect that he refused to speak 
out against the French terror in Algeria--a refusal that drew reproaches 
not only from the left but also from the Christian Democrat Francois 
Mauriac, the Gaullist Andre Malraux, the conservative Raymond Aron, and 
Camus's allies in the CIA-financed Congress for Cultural Freedom, Arthur 
Koestler, Ignazio Silone, and Stephen Spender. And it was obtuse for the 
Times reviewer, Richard Bernstein, to imply that Camus's famous break 
with his benefactor Jean-Paul Sartre was over Stalinism. Sartre was 
never a Communist, as Camus had been before the war. Indeed Todd relies 
on that experience to defend Camus from the charge of prejudice. He 
relates that the party assigned Camus to agitate for a bill to grant 
suffrage to a select few Algerian Arabs, but dropped the effort in 1937 
in deference to Popular Front unity Camus, Todd says, broke with the 
party rather than go along. Against that brief outreach to the Other, 
however, must be weighed the rest of Camus's life and works.

For Americans in the 1950s, Camus came on as a dashing figure, a 
literary genius, an existentialist icon, a champion of our side in the 
Cold War and a Resistance hero. He rather resembled Humphrey Bogart, and 
indeed flirted with a movie career; his glamour was magnified by a Nobel 
Prize and sanctified by his death like James Dean in an automobile crash 
in 1960. (Of his celebrity tour here, Todd records chiefly that he added 
an American to his harem.)

The two novels he wrote during the Occupation became must reading, as 
they remain. I recall, however, feeling that I was missing something. 
Having been to Oran during the war, I wondered as I read Camus, where 
are the Arabs? They appear to have escaped The Plague entirely; only two 
figure, barely, in The Stranger--a prostitute who is beaten by the 
narrator's thuggish pal Raymond, and an Arab youth, perhaps a kin of 
hers, whom the narrator, Meursault-Camus, seeks out and senselessly murders.

I confess I was less struck then by the low status Camus accorded 
women--the other Other. Meursault treats with callous indifference the 
woman who loves him, and rebuts a suggestion by the court that his crime 
might have been impelled by grief and rage over his mother's death. On 
the contrary, he embraces an imminent release from "this whole absurd 
life," and the novel ends, "I had only to wish that there be a large 
crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with 
cries of hate."

It is no wonder that the Nazi cultural gauleiter in Paris liked the 
manuscript and volunteered to help find "all the paper needed" to 
publish it. A hero's contempt for life and decency and the Other-- what 
could have been more timely, in occupied Europe, in 1942? Or, alas, 
today? Camus's contempt for life did not, though, extend to his own, not 
literally. In The Fall (1956), an autobiographical monologue of 
self-pity, self-glorification, and disdain for mankind and especially 
womankind, he said he had refused to join the Resistance because he had 
a horror of being beaten to death in a cell. "Underground action suited 
neither my temperament nor my preference for exposed heights," he wrote.


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