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Michel Houellebecq: Sérotonine (Serotonin)

Our narrator – I hesitate to call him a hero – is Florent-Claude Labrouste. The book is written at some unspecified time in the not so distant future but we start the story in 2019. Though he does not tell us it is 2019, he does tell us that it is the late 2010s, that Macron is president of France (with the implication that he is no longer when the story is being told) and that the UK (he says England, of course) has left the EU which, at the time of writing, is planned for 29 March, 2019.

Florent (people tend to use only the first part of his name) hates his first name but it is the only thing he can criticise his parents for. Generally, he says, they were good parents. We later learn – and this may or may not be relevant to his mental health – that they died in a double suicide pact when his father got an inoperable brain tumour. He is forty-six years old and works as an agronomist on a one year renewable contract with the Ministry of Agriculture. He is currently living with Yuzu, a Japanese woman, in an expensive flat in Paris.

Right from the beginning we learn about serotonin or, more particularly, the role it plays in his life. It is sometimes known as the happy chemical, though it seems to be more complicated than that. More particularly, anti-depressants, particularly SSRIs, alter the levels of serotonin in the body in order to control depression. He refers to one such drug, Captorix, which, as far as I can see is fictitious, which he will subsequently take and which will have a huge influence on his life and therefore on this novel. It does, however, have side effects: Les effets secondaires indésirables les plus fréquemment observés du Captorix étaient les nausées, la disparition de la libido, l’impuissance. Je n’avais jamais souffert de nausées. [The most frequently observed undesirable side effects in Captorix were nausea, the disappearance of libido, impotence. I had never never suffered from nausea.]

However, at the beginning of the book, despite mentioning Captorix, he is not taking it. Florent seems to have no friends. Like Houellebecq himself he studied agronomy at Agro. (Houellebecq also suffered from depression, so we must assume that this book is, at least in part, autobiographical.) Florent had a male friend at Agro, Aymeric, but had not seen him since Agro, though he will get together with him twice during the course of this book. He has had various girlfriends, including the current one, Yuzu, but the relationships had either drifted apart or ended badly.

We meet him at his flat in Spain, which he bought when he was with Camille (the only property he owns) where he is advising the apricot growers of Roussillon. Apart from his depression and his messy life, the key theme of this book is the disastrous state of agriculture in France. He prepares his report on the apricot growers and, as he says, they have no chance, faced with external competition. We get several other examples of where French agriculture is faring badly or is doomed. Houellebecq blames the bitch EU and he is clearly anti-EU.

The main example involves Aymeric who, after Agro, returns to his château in a remote part of Normandy where he runs a dairy farm. It is not going well, not least because of competition for milk from elsewhere and Aymeric can only survive by selling off some of his extensive tracts of land to foreigners, particularly the Chinese. In the end, Aymeric and his fellow dairy farmers take to the streets, blockading them and causing disruption, as we have often seen happen in real life, on the news in recent times.

Back to the early part of the novel, we see Florent fed up with his job and fed up with Yuzu. While browsing the Web one day, he comes across a category of people who have voluntarily disappeared. He finds that there were more than twelve thousand every year in France alone and finds examples of people who just walk out of their lives and sometimes go to a remote country but sometimes even stay in the same town. Apparently, it is not a crime to abandon your family in France and, indeed, the police cannot tell your family where you are without your permission.

He realises this is for him and in just one day he puts the plan into action, quitting his job, cancelling the lease on his flat (without telling Yuzu) and moving his bank account. He plans on staying in a hotel but the only problem is that most hotels do not allow smoking. We have seen that as he discusses his travels between Paris and his flat in Spain, where he has struggled to finds hotels to stay en route that do allow smoking.

Eventually he finds a suitable hotel in a part of Paris where Yuzu will be unlikely to go and he soon settles in there, living off the money his parents had left him. He establishes a daily routine. As he is feeling somehow depressed he goes to a rather unconventional psychiatrist who prescribes the Caprizol mentioned above.

The rest of the book tells of his early life and what he does now. We learn of four girlfriends (i.e. those that lasted for a while). Apart from Yuzu, one leaves him, he cheats on another and he drifts apart from the other. Two of them he tries to reconnect with at this stage. He finds both without too much difficulty but, not surprisingly, it does not work out as smoothly as he anticipated. More particularly, the Caprizol is starting to have an effect and, indeed, has an unexpected effect on him.

While Florent may not be Houellebecq, he is certainly, in some respects, Houellebecquian. He is contrarian and difficult. He is also a loner. He has only one friend – women are generally seen solely as sex objects – and he only sees him twice in twenty-five years. He treats people badly. Twice he seriously thinks about killing someone, not because of any wrongdoing on their part but simply because they are in the way. He has a negative outlook, criticising all and sundry – the French government, French agriculture, French railways, French traffic, Paris, the EU, Spain, the British, anglicisms, God (God is a poor scriptwriter), Yuzu and her activities and women in general. He is entirely self-centred. He is clearly not a loveable hero, though we cannot help but take an interest in him, partially because we wonder where he will go and what he will do when he is off-grid and partially because it is clear that this new drug, Caprizol, is going to play a strange role in his life, which it does.

His views on French agriculture are also most interesting, not least because they are seen, in part, as being symptomatic of the decline of France. The conventional view in Britain is that one of the main functions of the EU is to subsidise inefficient French agriculture. In a way, he confirms this, urging Aymeric and his colleagues to simply walk away from dairy farming, as they are fighting a losing battle, partially because there are far too many dairy farmers in France. However, to a great extent, he blames the EU for the failure of French agriculture. I suspect that there are elements of truth in both points of view.

A word on the language. He uses a lot of slang which could be difficult for the translator, not least in getting a balance between UK and US slang, but also because slang has a resonance which it is not always easy to convey in another language. Like most French, he makes extensive use of anglicisms, though criticising them. For example, when he moves off-grid and settles into his smokers’ hotel, he sees three local cafés where he might have his morning coffee. He selects one solely because it has une heure heureuse instead of the more usual le happy hour. (And yes, I am aware that happy hour is an americanism and not an anglicism.). Despite this, his use of anglicisms gives a resonance to the French text which cannot, of course, be carried over into an English translation. Interestingly, despite his professed dislike of the British (see The British get on my nerves in this article), his favourite groups are British (Pink Floyd and Deep Purple) and his favourite reading British – Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, I may be conflating Houellebecq and Florent in an unjustified manner but I suspect that they are not too different.

There is no doubt that this book will do well in French but also in many other languages. It is controversial, contrarian, very political, outspoken and very well-written. Whatever your views of Houellebecq and his opinions, it is an excellent read, with interesting twists, a fascinating even if obnoxious main character and a view worth heeding on where France is and where it is going.

First published in French 2019 by Flammarion
First published in English in 2019 by Heinemann