Michel Houellebecq: Anéantir [Annihilate]
Whatever your views on Michel Houellebecq, love him or hate him (and, I must admit, I have mixed views on him), he is certainly interesting, both as a writer and a human being. His books do seem to get into the underbelly of France quite effectively and this one is no different. It has been made more interesting for, though it was known for some time that the book would be coming out, both the title and the date of publication were kept under wraps till not long before the actual publication date. Yes, it’s showmanship but we would expect no less from Michel Houellebecq.
It is late 2026. Bastien Doutremont works for a computer company which has shown that it can hack into almost any French government site. However it has a contract with the DGSI, the French equivalent, more or less, of the CIA and MI5. Their latest issue is a series of CGI videos that initially started appearing on French government sites. When they were removed, they immediately reappeared. The first was simply a scene of a large grass prairie like the ones in the United States. No-one initially paid much attention to it. However, when they did, they realised that its technical skill was way beyond what was normally considered possible.
The second, equally skilful in terms of the CGI, was more worrying. Bruno Juge, the French Minister of Finance (apparently based on Bruno Le Maire, the current Minister of the Economy and Finance) is guillotined. Not surprisingly, Juge is somewhat concerned. A third video appeared on Facebook and Google.
There are various concerns. Who is making them and why? How can they have such technical skill? How can they control such a huge botnet, such that any video is immediately replaced as soon as it is deleted? And how can they even outsmart Google and Facebook that have far superior IT resources to the French government?
Paul Raison works for Bruno Juge and they have become quite close. We follow their private lives in some detail. Juge is separated from his wife and lives in a flat in his workplace. Raison also has marital problems. He and his wife share a house but have not seen one another for a long time. Their separation started with her change of diet to vegan, so they started eating separately. Then the sex stopped. Now they keep completely separate hours. He arrives home in the early hours and she is long gone by the time he wakes up. They have separate bedrooms.
Juge has been very successful in his various roles, so much so that he is considered a possible candidate for the presidency. The problem is that the voters consider him highly competent but not very likeable. Though the president is mentioned on several occasions, he is never named and Macron does not appear by name, However, Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen, both candidates in the 2022 French presidential elections, are both mentioned by name.
Meanwhile, another video emerges and this one shows a container ship being split in half by a huge wave. It turns out this is real. Somehow the bad guys got hold of a torpedo and torpedo launcher and sunk the ship.
Though these attacks are a key theme, Houellebecq focuses a lot on Raison’s family issues. His sister’s (Cécile) husband (Hervé)has lost his job (a lawyer). His younger brother (Aurélien), whom he does not really care for, is married to a journalist (Indy) ten years his senior. They have a son but he is not the biological father. She had a sperm donor – a black American. The child is called Godefroy. Houellebecq mildly mocks this as he mocks other activities that he considers woke (The term woke is now used in French but does not appear in this book.)
The father Edouard has a stroke shortly before Christmas. He had worked for DGSI and, indeed, Paul is asked to retrieve some papers from him,as they refer to mysterious events Edouard was tracking. Edouard is a widower but had started a relationship with his carer, Madeleine, Not surprisingly, the stroke upsets the family Christmas but enables them all to get together, which provides plenty of material for Houellebecq to let us follow a partially dysfunctional family.
As you can see, there are initially two main plot-lines – the mysterious CGI videos and the saga of the Raison family. We also get a third – the presidential elections. The president (by now, almost certainly Macron, though never named) can only do two successive terms. We assume he won in 2022 so he cannot be a candidate in 2027. He has therefore picked a stooge for the 2027 election – Benjamin Sarfati aka Big Ben. (Sarfati is the Hebrew for French). Bruno Juge will become temporary prime minister, before Macron does a Putin and changes the rules so that he becomes prime minister, till 2032. As a result Juge is busy with the elections.
Meanwhile the video-makers are getting nastier. They are causing physical damage but give warnings so that any humans can escape. Houellbecq has great fun with various experts speculating who they are, moving from the far left to the rabid Catholics, then to the Satanists and then the followers of John Zerzan and similar environmental extremists, including those that think humans should be destroyed because of all the harm they are doing to the planet.
Meanwhile in the Raison family, Paul and his wife seem to be repairing their marriage while some of the other marriages seem to be breaking down. Indeed, we have a real soap opera. We continue to follow the soap opera of the Raison family.
We would expect that, of the three plot lines, the terrorist attack would be the one that would turn out more complex and/or more calamitous but this is not entirely what happens, as the other two plot lines – the Raison family and the presidential elections also have considerable drama. Of course, as this is Houellebecq, we are not expecting a happy ending.
As usual, I have mixed views on this book. It is certainly ambitious, as we would expect and,inevitably, Houellebecq covers a range of topics concerning France, its culture, politics, economics and social issues.
As mentioned, Macron is not mentioned by name, but it seems clear that the president is Macron or, at least based on him. Houellebecq has mixed views on him. He says that he is a magnificent political animal but also that he has one political conviction and one alone. It is exactly the same as that of all of his predecessors and can be summed up in one sentence: I was made to be president.
Houellebecq delves into a host of issues: broader ones such as marriage, parenthood, old age and death and more political ones such as immigration and unemployment (and how they should be dealt with) as well as views on individual players. Indeed, it helps to know a bit about French politics but, if you do not, you will certainly learn quite bit about it. He attacks various parts of the French State – care homes being one obvious example but also the idea that the rich and powerful are always going to get better treatment, for example, in health care, than the ordinary people. In other words, Shock! Horror! France is not an egalitarian country, any more than any other country.
Of course, this book will cause a certain stir in France. That is, after all, Houellebecq’s modus operandi and, perhaps, his raison d’être. In the English-speaking world when it does get translated, it will cause less of a stir, not least because the French political issues will be of less concern. Overall, I thought it was not bad book, not by any means but certainly not a great book and not even his best. It is very readable, with interesting ideas and discussions and three plots you keep you going.
First published in French 2022 by Flammarion
No English translation