Book Review: Michel Houllebecq, The Map and the Territory

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I had never heard of Michel Houllebecq. It shows how local much news still is. France is no distance, you can even go there on the train, and yet someone famous in France can be nearly unknown in England.

Then I picked up his novel “The Map and the Territory” in my local library – in translation, of course.

To get this out of the way for those who had heard of him – Houllebecq is not purely famous in France for his novels. He was prosecuted for inciting racial hatred after saying Islam was “the most stupid of religions”. Now I don’t know the background, his arguments or other things he said, so I’m commenting from quite a lot of ignorance, and yet I feel I should comment.

First, that statement seem to me pretty stupid. But then I’ve got a History degree and if you ask me about Islam, I think of the culture of Andalucia, of Arab learning, of Sufi mysticism, of the mixed but by no means bad record of Muslim rulers of pre-Raj Indian states. Just as when I see it implied in a book that there may be some fundamental militaristic or warrior-like characteristic among Germans, I think, “Not so fundamental because the argument really won’t wash except for a period of at most two hundred years”. So I wonder what in contemporary Islam Houllebecq was attacking.

Secondly, in English and in English law at least, to attack a religion is not racist unless the attack on the religion is (as it sometimes is in England) a cloak for racism.

Thirdly, to incite racial or religious hatred seems to me to require more than to say something is stupid. His statement was silly, provocative, possibly grandstanding, but I’d have thought unlikely to incite the sort of hatred that leads to physical attacks.

Nonetheless, it’s probably a good thing I had no idea of all this when I read his book – because I liked it. As some reviewers commented, authors who include themselves in their own books rarely create credible characters (they may not have put it quite like that) and there are writers whose subject seems permanently to have become themselves (arguably forgiveable for poets, but I’m thinking, for example, of Norman Mailer). But the Michel Houllebecq who appears in this novel is shabby, self-deluding, ingloriously heavy-drinking, confused – though achieving something much better later. There are wholly inglorious touches like finding that his kicks have been from on-line lingerie catalogues. In other words, if you didn’t know this was a portrait of the author himself, you might well say, “What a fantastic character portrait!”

But Houllebecq is only the second character of the book. The main one is an artist who seems to be borderline autistic, brilliant with detail but oddly detached in his personal relations even a love affair, obsessional but fairly unworried about it, who first hits the headlines with endless photographic reproductions of Michelin maps. The author seems to be poking fun at the art world and the whole concept of art. This character has some similarity to the main character in Tom McCarthy’s “C”, which I reviewed a while back. But whereas I was unsure if McCarthy realised how oddly emotionless his character was, Houllebecq seems to know he’s making us a fairly sympathetic portrait of an odd fish – two odd fish, in fact.

The book is truly humane. In the third part, several police detectives appear and they are shown as conscientious, worried, uncertain people, doing their best to retain their humanity in the face of a job that obliges them to confront horror and immeasurable meanness. By the way, one of them is of Lebanese origin, another sympathetic character is Black African and I see no sign of racism.

It was interesting to read a contemporary French novel and find things that, even in what appeared to be a very good translation, one would not find in a British or American book. One is long sentences. There are several, peppered with semi-colons, that an Anglo-Saxon editor would not have allowed. Short sentences can pack a lot of punch, but I say, “Vive la France!”. Long sentences like these convey a complex interrelationship of ideas and qualifications in a way a series of short sentences could not. Another is a willingness to engage philosophical concepts head on. Few British writers do that, especially since Iris Murdoch’s death. But leading on from that is a French characteristic I like less, a tendency to throw around abstract concepts as though they were concrete, to talk about Liberty, Reason or whatever without any sense that these are fuzzy approximations needing clarification.

Houllebecq does seem to go a long way for publicity, but his book deserves consideration for itself.

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