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France

France’s Houellebecq foresees Yellow Vest unrest in new novel

media French author Michel Houellebecq in 2015. AFP/Patrik Stollarz

French author Michel Houellebecq’s seventh novel, Serotonin, is slated for release on Friday. Its depiction of a revolt of desperate inhabitants of the French countryside echoes the Yellow Vest protests of recent weeks, continuing the writer’s trend of anticipating the evolution of modern society in eerily prophetic fashion.

The novel, whose title refers to the mood-regulating brain chemical targeted by many antidepressant medications, will be released in France on Friday, though an English translation is not slated for publication until September.

Synopses and reviews indicate its protagonist, a 46-year-old suffering the effects of a spiritually vacuous urban existence, breaks from a relationship and job and returns to his rural Normandy hometown.

There, he finds farmers and former factory workers whose way of life has been devastated by the liberal economic policies of the European Union and who start blocking roads in angry desperation, leading to an ill-fated encounter with CRS riot police.

The book was written before the appearance in November of the Yellow Vest movement, which has seen protesters from rural and small-town France venting their rage against the country’s leaders.

“The plot of Serotonin obviously foresees the Yellow Vests, since the novel was finished before summer, long before any demonstrations,” says Agathe Novak-Lechevalier, an assistant professor of modern literature at Nanterre University and author of a recent book on Houellebecq.

“It’s not exactly the Yellow Vests, which are a more sociologically and politically heterogeneous movement, while Houellebecq’s characters are mostly farmers. But even so, it articulates the suffering of a large part of France that lives with the threat of neglect and poverty.

“There is also the theme of solitude, which has been present in Houellebecq for a long time. When the Yellow Vests of today say they are rediscovering camaraderie and fraternity at the demonstrations, this is the kind of suffering from solitude that Houellebecq has been exploring from the start.”

Bleak and prophetic

Houellebecq’s previous works have garnered praise for their frank critiques of Western decadence and the alienating effects of economic globalisation on human relationships, as well as controversy for their critique of contemporary values and especially their disdain for religion and Islam.

The protagonists, often interpreted as stand-ins for the author, tend to be affluent but depressed and alienated urbanites seeking meaning through sex tourism and swingers clubs, and the narratives are rife with criticisms of social trends.

Serotonin is not the first of Houellebecq’s novels to come with an eerily prophetic effect.

Platform, whose climatic moment features an Islamist attack on a resort in Thailand, was released eight days before 11 September 2001, and a year before a fundamentalist attack on a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia.

And Submission, which addressed France’s uneasy relationship with Islam, was slated for release on 7 January 2015, the same day that extremists gunned down the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

That novel told a bizarre tale of sharia law being imposed in France following the victory of a Muslim defeating real-life French politician Marine Le Pen in the 2022 French presidential election.

However realistic or not that storyline may prove to be, it still pointed towards anxieties over French identity and values that flared in public debates following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Reviled and honoured

Houellebecq himself also has a penchant for making remarks that step up the controversy even further, perhaps in service to the marketing and sales of his novels.

During an interview to promote Platform, Houellebecq called Islam “the stupidest religion”, which led to legal action from a number of anti-racist groups.

In remarks that appear designed to ruffle feathers in the build-up to Serotonin, Houellebecq told a US magazine in December that “Donald Trump is one of the best American presidents I have ever seen,” adding that “Europe does not exist.”

But while many inside and outside of France revile Houellebecq, he is a best-selling author at home and abroad.

He also received the country’s highest literary award, the Goncourt Prize, in 2010, and was decorated with France’s highest civilian distinction, the Legion of Honour, on Tuesday.

Agathe Novak-Lechevalier suggests the mix of revulsion and adulation has its roots in Houellebecq’s 1998 breakthrough novel, The Elementary Particles (translated as Atomised in the UK).

That book, she says, was “a new kind of novel that was not easy to interpret, ideologically speaking, and that in this way resisted easy classification”.

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