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Articles and Reviews: BOOKS


By Michel Houellebecq
Published by Heinemann

In The Outsider, Camus wrote of his anti-hero killing an Arab. In this follow up to his Impac Award-winning Atomised, Houellebecq, the first French novelist since Camus to find a wide readership outside France, has the Arabs - or more accurately, and safer to say - Islamic fundamentalists, take their revenge, dispatching first the anti-hero's father, and then the love of his life.
'Father died last year', begins Platform's central character Michel, a civil servant accounts manager at the Ministry of Culture, echoing The Outsider's Meursault, with his opening shot, 'Mother died today'. But if Michel is another outsider, he is also curiously representative of the contemporary single, middle-class, middle-aged, Western male. With his inheritance, he takes a package holiday to Thailand, where he disdains his fat, plebeian, or equally noxious New Age fellow-tourists, and frequents the hostess bars and massage parlours. He also meets Valerie, an employee of the tour company, and embarks on an intense affair with her back in Paris.




Michel persuades Valerie and her boss, who have been headhunted by a rival conglomerate to turn around an ailing company, to promote sex tourism in Thailand and the Caribbean. His socio-economic rationale of the venture is succinct: 'maybe it's something to do with narcissism, or individualism, the cult of success', but 'you have several hundred million Westerners who have everything they could want but no longer manage to obtain sexual satisfaction…on the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing, who are starving, who die young, who live in conditions unfit for human habitation and who have nothing left to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality.' For himself, Michel has enough self-knowledge to recognise that, 'As a wealthy European, I could obtain food and the services of women more cheaply in other countries; as a decadent European, conscious of my approaching death, and given over entirely to selfishness, I could see no reason to deprive myself of such things.'
The launch of the Aphrodite package is initially a success, and with Michel 'finding it more and more difficult to understand how one could feel attached to an idea, a country, anything in fact other than an individual', he and Valerie are planning to settle in Thailand for good. Then some Muslim terrorists put an end to the idyll on the beach, blowing Valerie and 116 prostitutes and their customers to smithereens, for contravention of strict Islamic law.
Criticisms of the book include that Valerie is more the product of male, specifically French, fantasy - she used to prefer women and is happy to find and share girls with Michel. But women like her do exist in 'real' life, outside the pages of books written by men, or for that matter, by women. There is much interpolation of social theory and data, which can become tedious. Women are frequently reduced simply to body parts, but then so are men. There is little audacious use of language or fine writing, and scenes lack atmosphere.
For all that, Houellebecq is a profound writer, and Platform, when added to Atomised, confirms his importance as a writer who still thinks ideas matter, and that books should be about something that matters. For him, the values of the West are hollow, consumerist, self-serving and vicious. Everyone works in marketing, and customer satisfaction is the only criterion and profit the bottom line. But the traditional pieties of the alien invading hordes of Islam are no better alternative, being just as mindless, and even more barbaric and brutal.
For his pains, Houellebecq has been sued by several Muslim organisations, and inadvertently become a 'new Rushdie'. But his character Michel is aware that he is as much part of the morass he delineates as anyone else. He knows that no society can survive with individuals like him, but sees no way out, given the way society is currently configured and, more essentially, given human nature. What everyone forgets is that Meursault, like Camus, was himself an Algerian. From his $50 a month apartment outside Pattaya, where Michel goes to die, he ends his sad, apocalyptic memoir, 'I'll be forgotten. I'll be quickly forgotten.'

First published in the Irish Independent














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