French prophet of doom Houellebecq launches political thriller

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  • Michel Houellebecq
    French writer

France's biggest literary star, Michel Houellebecq, was back in bookshops Friday, with many eager to know what the famously prescient author has to say in the midst of a bruising presidential election campaign.

Houellebecq sells in big numbers: 300,000 copies have been ordered for the French release of his eighth novel "Aneantir" ("Annihilate"), with an English edition due later this year.

And he has an uncanny knack for capturing the moment.

His 2015 novel "Submission" about a Muslim winning the presidency, which taps into right-wing fears over the rise of Islam, was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in Paris.

His next novel, "Serotonin", about the plight of rural farmers, appeared just as the French countryside was exploding with "yellow vest" anti-government protests.

The new book looks similarly topical. It is part-thriller, set during an election in 2027 with characters that clearly resemble current politicians, including President Emmanuel Macron, who faces a tough re-election battle in real life this April.

But the novel's focus ultimately proves more personal, as the narrator tackles his relationships with a dying father and estranged wife.

Houellebecq himself, who cultivates the image of a depressed reactionary, dismisses any grand intentions in his work.

"Fundamentally, I'm just a whore. I write for the applause. Not for the money, but to be loved, admired," he told Le Monde newspaper last week, between multiple glasses of white wine.

The fans were still keen in Paris on Friday.

"He's the greatest living writer in France. And he's counter-cultural: a white male heterosexual," said Leonardo Orlando, a Spanish-Argentinian buying his book soon after the shops opened.

- 'Cantankerous old uncle' -

The uncharacteristic traces of love and even hope in the new book suggest the 60-something chain-smoker, who married for the third time in secret in 2018, may be mellowing slightly with age.

"There's no need to celebrate evil to be a good writer," he told Le Monde.

But there is still plenty of the familiar misogynistic and xenophobic vitriol from his characters, alongside diatribes about France's spiritual and cultural decline.

For many critics, it's too much.

"From a young, highly lucid writer on society, Houellebecq has become a sort of cantankerous old uncle completely overwhelmed by his time," wrote left-wing magazine Les Inrockuptibles.

But many other critics, across the political spectrum, have been full of praise.

Le Monde gushed over "fleeting moments, in the midst of the loneliness and dereliction, that make you cry".

Houellebecq was a darling of the left in the 1990s, when his uncompromising accounts of those left behind by globalisation and sexual liberation in novels such as "Atomised" and "Platform" struck a chord around the world.

But in recent years, that same pessimism, which he has summed up as "the suicide of modernity", has mapped more neatly onto right-wing fears about the decline of nation, church and family -- as well as the misogyny of "incel" men, who blame gender equality for leaving them sexless.

In 2020, he released a book of essays praising writer Eric Zemmour, now a far-right candidate for the presidency with strident views about migrants.

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