Religious Extremism Reigns in New Crop of Dystopian Literature

An Islamist president rises to power in France, a Third Temple is built in Jerusalem and fundamentalist-totalitarian empire emerges in three novels penned by authors exhibiting a passion for the destruction of the existing order.

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The front page of Charlie Hebdo shows a caricature of French author Michel Houellebecq. The text says: 'Wizard Houellebecq's predictions. In 2015, I'll lose my teeth. In 2022, I'll observe Ramadan.'
A caricature of French author Michel Houellebecq on the cover of Charlie Hebdo. The text says: 'Wizard Houellebecq's predictions. In 2015, I'll lose my teeth. In 2022, I'll observe Ramadan.'Credit: Reuters
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

Economic crisis and a rise in the number of refugees have brought about the strengthening of the right in France. The voters are more nationalist than ever, and Marine Le Pen’s National Front, with 32 percent of the vote, is the country’s strongest party. Nevertheless, she does not win the election: Other political forces mobilize and the socialists remain in power. Still, the political arena becomes rapidly more extreme. Bombs go off in the heart of Paris, and in the suburbs pitched battles are fought between supporters of the far right and the migrants. 

Amid all this, a new political party is created: the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Mohammed Ben Abbes. In the first round of the presidential election, the National Front wins a majority and the Muslim Brotherhood finishes second, with 22.3 percent of the votes. Following lengthy discussions, the parties of the center and the left announce their support for Ben Abbes, and in the second round of voting the Islamist candidate is elected president of France.

You can be excused for feeling confused, but that’s not the news – it’s literature. This is the course of the political events as they unfold in “Submission,” a novel by the French writer Michel Houellebecq (pronounced “welbeck”) that was probably the most-talked-about book of 2015, at least in Europe and Israel (English translation: Lorin Stein). Extraordinarily, Houellebecq’s fictitious scenario became a kind of parallel reality, a perverse version of the concrete world, though preceding it by a few steps. And because Houellebecq himself is one of the most sought-after political spokespersons in France in the era of Islamic State terrorism, his imaginary novelistic vision is, in a strange way, affecting reality.

Joining Houellebecq’s book is “2084: The End of the World,” by the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal (in French), a novel that conducts a dialogue with George Orwell’s “1984” and portrays a fundamentalist-totalitarian empire. It harks back to John Lennon, the finest creative forces of our time enjoy imagining another world – except that this world looks like a nightmare.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Post-apocalyptic novels, set in a period after the collapse of human civilization, were also a feature of the first decade of the present century. Many observers consider “The Road” (2006) by the American author Cormac McCarthy, which takes place in a land struck by an unclear catastrophe, to be that decade’s most important novel. Another key work in the same vein is “The Year of the Flood” (2009), by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, which describes the life of a community that has survived an ecological calamity. 

The present period, in contrast, has apparently tired of environmental catastrophes. The leading genre these days is the political dystopia. Here it’s not nature that lurches out of control, but society and politics. Regime deterioration replaces ecological disaster as the imminent threat to humanity.

In some cases, political collapse is abetted by a nuclear event. “The Third,” a Hebrew-language novel by Yishai Sarid, is something of an Israeli parallel to “Submission.” However, unlike Houellebecq’s book, which describes the rise of Islam to power as a concrete event that could occur in the present political reality – the events depicted in the local dystopia are far less gradual and nuanced. The city of Haifa is wiped off the face of the earth by a bomb. Two minutes later, another bomb strikes Tel Aviv, landing a hundred meters from the headquarters of the Israel Defense Forces General Staff. The two cities are reduced to “valleys of death,” and most of the few survivors lose any semblance of humanity. 

The “vaporization,” as the double bombing is called, constitutes a critical political fracture. The community of survivors gathers in the Judean Hills and picks a reserve army officer as its leader. He leads the refugees in a war against the Palestinians, who are driven from the country. The engineering corps blows up the shrines on the Temple Mount, the Third Temple is built (hence the book’s title), and a king is crowned in Jerusalem who renews the tradition of animal sacrifices. The existential fears of secular Israelis in Metropolitan Tel Aviv fuse here into one horrific vision: both the destruction of Tel Aviv by Arabs and the rise of an isolationist fascist theocracy.

‘Frisson of fascism’

What are the authors of these dystopias trying to say? Houellbecq, Sansal and Sarid are like angry prophets. All three gave interviews coinciding with the publication of their respective books’ publication in which they warned against the strengthening of religious fanaticism, and called on society to take action to rebuff the threat. But the hypnotic power of the corrosive vision and the joy with which it is hurled in the face of readers attests to a different sentiment: a passion for the destruction of the existing order. Houellbecq utters this desire most explicitly, as the narrator of his novel notes, “Over the years the rise of the far right had made things a little more interesting. It gave the debates a long-lost frisson of fascism.” 

Indeed, politics in the neoliberal era is far from firing the imagination. The politicians tend to be technocrats who obey the commands of financial institutions; in most of the developed countries, the parties of the right and the left implement the same policy with barely perceptible differences. Many people feel that the whole system is fundamentally flawed but don’t know who exactly should be the object of their outrage. Governments come and go, presidents are ousted and sent to jail – and the economic and political system remains intact.

Power doesn’t have a specific territory, it percolates through the whole global system. As the philosophers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue, empire does not have a defined location. Even America is not “the empire,” though it remains the strongest political power. Sheldon Adelson and Hillary Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu – all are extensions of the same empire, even when they are battling one another.

As was the case a century ago, a desire occasionally wells up for a world war that will decimate the whole system. Some enjoy imagining evil that is palpable, clear and unequivocal: the rise of a mighty fascist state. That’s the underlying fantasy of the classic novel “The Man in the High Castle” (1962), by Philip K. Dick, which this year was adapted for television by Amazon. Dick’s novel is not a dystopia but an alternative history, in which the United States loses World War II, and is occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan after an atomic bomb is dropped on Washington. The TV series revolves around a girl and a boy, two young American idealists who confront the absolute evil and are determined to save their homeland.

In our confused time, who can imagine a heroic struggle like this for the freedom of the American nation? It’s easy to forget that Amazon itself, which produced the series, is a global economic empire that is a dominant player in world trade and controls its employees in a style that would not seem out of place in Orwell’s “1984.”

The encouraging message embedded in the dystopian works is that where there is power, there is resistance. The advent of absolute evil will awaken the nation’s somnolent forces. An additional, ironic message arises from Houellbecq’s novel: The Islamist regime, which encourages polygamy, liberates the aging hero from his growing sexual frustration. Sometimes one problem solves another.

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