To put it bluntly, there are shorter and denser books than Houellebecq. In his 1994 debut, Expanding the Battle Zone, he needed only 155 pages to tell a story readers will never forget. “Vernichten” takes up 615 pages, which is not only, but also for what he writes: it is an almost classic family novel, doubly framed by a political subplot and a global intelligence plot. Finally, in the acknowledgments, Houllebecq suggests that this novel will be the last (“It’s time to stop”). Of course, things could be very different for an author like him. But “Vernichten” actually seems like a very big, almost overwhelming ending point of his work, because the novel, despite the title and despite the argument (crisis, illness, near death), has a well-packed core that Houllebecq has been dealing with. until now he had never been so intensely busy: the author paradoxically tells of healing and making amends in a love relationship that has actually already been destroyed.
As is well known, Pandora’s box contained not only misfortune in many forms but also hope (which remains in the box because the lid then closes too quickly). “Annihilate” corresponds quite closely to this Pandora principle. Here, too, the reader must make sure that the motive for healing and hope does not escape him.
As always with this author, at the center of the action is a middle-aged and well-to-do man from the bourgeois milieu. The six-hundred-page trumpet tells the story of Paul Raison, just under fifty, an ENA graduate, public official and one of the closest collaborators of the French Minister of Economy, Bruno Juge. From Paris and the Ministry, Houllebecq casts his epic web on Paul’s family and provincial France. Much of the novel takes place there, from a Parisian point of view, in the suburbs and among very normal, almost conservative people. The author does not hide his sympathy with this staff. Almost nothing is so difficult to describe as a conservative, even for someone like Houellebecq, whose point of view is never cynical – this hypothesis is one of the greatest misunderstandings of his critics – but on the other hand also completely submerged.
Still relevant: “Presentation”
Houellebecq is indispensable for the history of the European disease
In the lives of these common people in the small town called Saint-Joseph, grouped around Paul’s father who was paralyzed by a stroke, there is, however, something subversive in the conditions of the slightly dystopian France of 2027 in which “Annihilate” is set. Characters from the suburbs such as Paul’s sister Cécile and her husband Hervé have long since ceased to live with the wave of society. They live against it, as do their father’s girlfriend and Paul Aurélien’s brother.
In that not-so-distant future the division is even deeper than it is today; The corporate economy is thriving again, thanks in part to the policies of the talented technocrat Juge, French carmakers are even outpacing their German competitors. In many areas outside of Paris and the big cities, impoverishment and decay are part of the norm. Nobody there seriously believes in change for the better. Social communication occurs almost exclusively through television and internet platforms, the press has, as they say at one point, “lost almost all of its readers”. A well-known television comedian is running as a promising presidential candidate.
This society, in which the parties are only loosely connected, is hit by a series of attacks by an anonymous underground movement that sends messages in indecipherable sign language along with records of its actions on the Internet. Right at the start of the novel, outsiders released a computer-generated video showing Juge’s execution with a guillotine, with the animation looking so perfect that DGSI intelligence experts wondered which organization had the mainframe computers required. The virtual beheading is followed by a real attack, the sinking of a Chinese container ship bound for Europe by a technically advanced torpedo, with which the unknown terrorist organization questions all the supply chains of East Asia.
In this strand of the novel, Houellebecq casually sketches a de-globalization with a surprising echo of that decoupling trade relations with Russia and also with China, which Western politicians are currently attempting. It is not the first time that the author has shown a talent for literary omens; his novel “Submission” about an Islamic takeover in France was published on January 7, 2015, the day of the massacre, in the editorial office of the satirical newspaper “Charlie Hebdo”. The plot of the apocryphal clandestine power and the attempt by the secret services to at least decipher the significance of the attacks lead to Paul, because his father, a retired DGSI man, seems to know something of the background. Houellebecq deceives his readers with this clue. What starts out as a Thomas Pynchon-style thriller leads somewhere else.
THE NEW THOR KUNKEL
When do-gooders collide with reality
Even in Paul’s life the individual parts of his existence are at most weakly connected to the beginning of the story. He has lived with his wife Prudence for ten years in a condominium divided between the two, even in the fridge there is a clear separation between his and his area. One sentence is enough for Houellebecq to describe their cold marriage: “Sleeping alone is difficult when you are no longer used to it, it stiffens and you fear; but they were long past that arduous phase; they had reached a kind of unified despair. ”
Destroy reverses the course of classic family novels, which usually tell of decline. After his father’s stroke, Paul travels to Saint-Joseph and the other family members also gather at his parents’ home. There Paul realizes that there is still something like a final, but also elementary, education. In the provinces a counterworld arises around him, which he had previously perceived only out of the corner of his eye. One of the small but significant footnotes of this account is that Paul, who is politically somewhere in the middle, finds a modus operandi with his brother-in-law Hervé, who naturally chooses Le Pen and would never choose anything else. Herein lies the reason for the healing: not everything has to be fought. Where the political is no longer connected, the private and the family can still exist and even more.
“Family and marriage”, Houllebecq suggests to its protagonist in one of the many semi-essayistic passages, “were the two remaining poles that ordered the life of the last inhabitants of the West in the first half of the 21st century. Other models had been considered in vain by people who had the merit of anticipating the wear of traditional models, without being able to develop new ones, and their historical role had therefore been completely negative. Liberal Doxa continued to stubbornly ignore the problem, imbued with her unconditional and naïve belief that the lure of profit could replace all other human incentives and alone produce the intellectual energy needed to sustain a complex social organization. “
With the help of another underground non-violent organization, the family kidnaps their paralyzed father from the hospital and takes him home. kills can no longer articulate). About halfway through the book comes the unlikely turn; the glacial decade between Paolo and Prudenza ends in the warmth of the province and the family environment. Two middle-aged people who were only together by convention in Paris have reunited. From now on, intelligence, attacks and presidential elections produce only the narrative background noise of this wholly unlikely coincidence. Of course, the unattached world is not disappearing. He is marginalized only temporarily.
The Houellebecq phenomenon
«Paul had met people», he says in a sort of summary, «who would not have dreamed of taking back a given word, with whom it was not even necessary to resort to the formality of a promise. It was surprising that such people still existed, and not even that infrequently. For about a century, more and more people of other kinds had appeared; they were nice and squalid, they no longer even possessed the relative innocence of apes, they were animated by a hellish mission to gnaw and eat all bonds, to destroy all that was necessary and human. Unfortunately, they ended up reaching the general public, ordinary people. ”
With an author like Houellebecq it always counts such as he says. This is another way in which “Annihilation” differs from its predecessors. And not just for its size. After the first few pages, playing for the secret services, the author tells the story in a classic way through the eyes of its protagonist. Towards the middle, Houellebecq divides the perspective, the reader follows Cécile’s sister for a while, then Aurélien, then returns later to Paul. The longer reflective passages are not resolved in action, they are like essays in the tortuous narrative flow. They too are at the height of his storytelling skills, for example when he puts an entire treatise on faith in progress and reaction into the mouth of his minister Juge, in which, surprisingly, he takes from Alfred de Musset’s radically anti-modernist poem Roll quoted.
All in all, erasing a good hundred pages would not have damaged the novel. On the other hand, there is something endearing about the nonchalance and sometimes neglect with which he writes. “Vernichten” is a late work with a broad brush and a notable disregard for convention.
In one place, however, it follows the most important rule for a novel, especially anything over 500 pages: it’s about life and death. The final sentence (belongs to Prudence) belongs to the category of large sentences that have repercussions throughout the book.
And Houellebecq sticks to his tradition also with “Annihilation” on another important point: from the beginning, from “Expansion of the Battle Zone”, “Elementary Particles” and “Submission” to this provisional final piece, he has always thought about literature. that was out of him up to that moment no one had been able to invent the term. A spirit medium is said to have the ability to see the future, the past, or both. The French author possesses the underrated ability, as a medium, to recognize a structure in the present where others perceive only the fog.
Anyone who wants to know something about our present has been able to learn more from Houellebecq than from the newspapers for almost thirty years. And only with this mindfulness can the future be predicted. He is the most up-to-date of all European authors.
Houllebecq is both a medium and an ambassador.
Michael Houellebecq, To destroy. Novel. Translated from the French by Stephan Kleiner and Bernd Wilczek. DuMont Verlag, 624 pages, € 28.00.