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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