I really like to switch book styles from one book to another. So, after the Japanese life meditation and American young woman exuberance, this month I switched to a French dystopic thriller. Michel Houellebecq, the most important contemporary French author, published his last novel, “Anéantir” (Annihilate) last year. I found it on the common library* from the apartment building I live in.
*In my apartment building, a common project of book sharing started last year. It is called the living library and you can take any book as long as you leave another one there. And after you finish reading you are, of course, expected to bring it back. So that others can also enjoy it. And take another one.
About the author
My friends always recommended me to read “Serotonin” or “Elementary Particles” by Michel Houellebecq. But I haven’t managed to get the time to read them yet. However, I always found this author really interesting. Firstly, Houellebecq is not even his name. It is a pseudonym, with his real name being Thomas. Why would someone choose a name that is so hard to pronounce instead of a simple and easy to remember name?
His birthday is not exactly known. In papers, he is born in 1958, but according to his version, he is another two years older. This happened because his mother, before leaving him in favor of a hippie lifestyle somewhere in Brazil, declared him to be older. She did this because at the age of four Michel was so smart that she could no longer keep him in the house.
The nonconformist lifestyle is something he is used to, and he can easily write about. Depression, anxiety, and stress are all elements Houellebecq writes about with ease. And while reading his books, it is easy to get immersed into the story. He offers the reader in the novel a lack of meaning without being meaningless.
Where Michel Houellebecq’s book Anéantir succeeds
I like how the book is about self-destruction when there is no reason for it. Not only civilizations but also human beings are all self-destructing with no external or objective cause for it. I could find my younger self in some of the actions of the characters. And I think we as humankind have a tendency to choose the wrong paths too often. This is why I read this book in a breath, finishing all 730 pages in only 3 days.
There are many themes Houellebecq covers in this book. From election and politics, to religion, social stratification, hospital care issues, personal nature of journalism, life, family rebuilding, and death. What begins as a political thriller ends as a metaphysical meditation.
I also enjoyed the dreams. There are some passages where Paul, the main character, dreams. But you are not realizing it until some supernatural elements appear. I found Paul’s dreams so vivid and creative that they were some of my favorite passages of the book.
Lastly, I am a fan of happy endings. Even though Paul dies at the end of the book, I loved the fact that, until the last moment, he loved. The fact that love redeems life and gives it a meaning, especially in a time in which money, power, and success are more valuable, it is something encouraging. Living and loving even when death knocks at the door is a win over death. And that makes the sad end a happy one.
Where Michel Houellebecq’s book Anéantir fails
Firstly, I haven’t read other books he wrote, but from what I know the plots and protagonists are similar. Middle aged intelligent and well-educated men that can purchase everything they want and need. They have all the necessities covered. The problem is they don’t know what to live for. They have no illusions, no religion, no political belief, no cultural identity. This nihilism of hope, dreams and illusions is something that appears in all his novels. And you should not expect to find something different in “Anéantir”.
Aspects I personally did not enjoyed
Also, this is a personal preference, but I do not like some aspects of the society portrayed by Houellebecq. For instance, the women are so masculinized, while the men are so feminized. Work and ambition are the job of women in his book. While staying a home, being supported by the women, dreaming and love is the role of men. While I support feminism and gender equality, I find this role reversal to be slightly ironic to women empowerment movements.
I also definitely not enjoyed the lack of boundaries between family members. While I loved the rediscovery of love between Paul, the main character, and his wife, I certainly cringed while reading the chapter in which Paul goes to a sex-worker. The reason being that this sex-worker is actually his niece. A fact that he discovers only after the sexual activity began. And he decided to keep it a secret from her parents.
The feeling this book left me is of someone afraid of equality between sexes and nationalities. I felt like the male characters would rather be lonely than to accept a woman or a person of color as an equal. I tried to take it as a challenge to see how the world would look like if we don’t embrace diversity. But still it disturbed me a little.
Favorite quotes from Michel Houellebecq Anéantir
“What’s the point of installing 5G if we simply could no longer get in touch, and accomplish the essential gestures, those which allow the human species to reproduce, those which also sometimes allow us to be happy?”Michel Houellebecq
“An ideal lie consists of the juxtaposition of various pieces of true truth, with certain omissions made; basically, it’s essentially omissions combined with a few well-measured exaggerations.”
“Some Mondays at the very end of November, or the beginning of December, especially when you are single, you have the feeling of being on death row. The summer holidays are long forgotten, the new year is still far away; the proximity of nothingness is unusual.”
“Curiously, the press, although it was losing almost all of its readers, had increased its harmful power in recent years, now it could ruin lives, and it did not deprive itself of doing so, especially during electoral periods, even resorting to a procedure judicial had become useless, a simple suspicion was enough to destroy someone.”
“But it is not the fact of having been happy in a place that makes the prospect of leaving it painful, it is simply the fact of leaving it, of leaving behind a part of your life, however tedious or even unpleasant, of see that it sinks into nothingness; in other words, it is the fact of getting old.”
“However wide their cultural differences, they shared a very old and very strange belief, which had survived the collapse of all civilizations, and just about all beliefs: when one has benefited from ‘a happy chance, an unexpected gift of fate, it is important to be silent, and above all not to be proud, lest the gods take umbrage and weigh down their hand.”
“Human life is made up of a succession of administrative and technical difficulties, punctuated by medical problems; with age, medical aspects prevail. Life then changes its nature and begins to resemble an obstacle course: increasingly frequent and varied medical examinations scrutinize the state of your organs. They conclude that the situation is normal, or at least acceptable, until one of the two renders a different verdict. Life then changes for the second time and becomes a more or less long and painful journey towards death.”Michel Houellebecq
“Devaluing the past and the present for the benefit of the future, devaluing the real in order to prefer a virtuality located in an uncertain future, are much more decisive symptoms of European nihilism than all those that Nietzsche could detect.”
What is Michel Houellebecq Anéantir about?
Spoiler alert. If you do not want to find details about the book action, please move directly to conclusions.
The action starts in election year 2027 in France in a thriller-like manner. Some hackers launch virtual attacks that nobody can explain. This will become a recurring theme in the book, but the focus will not fall on it. Also, I must say that the solution to this attack was quite disappointing. I am a fan of thriller books, and I was left with more questions than answers, which is quite annoying.
The protagonist, Paul, works in the Minister of the Economy, with the Minister, Bruno. The job he is doing is not very clearly presented, but he has a very close friendship with his boss. At the same time, the dystopic reality is the one at home. There he is estranged from his wife, that finds refugee in Wiccan religion. They have no physical contact, they sleep in separate rooms, and they even have different shelves on the fridge. Yet by the end of the book, they will rediscover each other. A rediscovery coming after more than 15 years of no physical contact.
The characters are slowly introduced as Paul’s father has a major AVC and is left as a vegetable. Paul’s sister is a Christian believer and practitioner, which is seen as a failure. Her husband was a notary, yet now he is unemployed. The fact that he is not looking for a job is seen as another failure of an evolved human being. Their daughter lives in Paris, where she studies and offers sexual services for money in the free time, without her parent knowing about her side job. Paul accidentally discovers what his niece is doing, after having some sexual relationships with her in the dark.
Other important character is Paul’s brother, Aurelien. He was married to a minor journalist who chose to have a child by artificial insemination, though Aurelien himself was not sterile. She chose a black sperm donor so that she could demonstrate her liberal virtue and lack of racial prejudice. Their son was addicted to his phone and incapable of communicating or building face-to-face human relationships. When Aurelien finds real love and wants to divorce, she takes revenge by publishing an article in a national magazine. This leads to Aurelien suicide by hanging.
Politics and older people healthcare
Another theme of the book is politics. With the elections of 2027 slowly approaching, the current president wants to have a temporary successor for the next mandate, that will not damage France progress but will still not be better than him. So that in the next elections, he will regain his presidency seat. This provides the perfect excuse to delve into the world of western politics, where communication is more important than substance.
Lastly, Houellebecq delves into the theme of how society treats the older people. The medical centers are actually ruled by neglect and the staff is overworked and insufficient. The treating doctor is the one making all decisions for the patient, with the family being denied any rights. At the same time, when a major character in the Ministry, such as Paul, is diagnosed with cancer, all obstacles are moved to provide possible treatment recommendation. However, the individual in general has a self-destruction part so strong that prevails even when all efforts are made for his well-being.
Why Michel Houellebecq Anéantir is a good recommendation
As Le monde called it, it is a “political thriller that veers into metaphysical meditation”.
This book is one about destruction, about the end of everything, for civilization, men, and individual. However, this end has also the solution, as the main character learns how to live again. I loved this book and reading it made me see some society falls in a clearer way, while also finding hope for the future. I can’t say that it is a pleasant reading experience as a whole (there are some passages I cringed over while reading). But it is definitely powerful and insightful. While it is not a book that I will want to start over again, it will definitely stay with me long enough and forcibly enough.
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Also, if you know any other interesting books you read recently and would recommend, please share with me in the comments below their titles. I already chose the book I am reading next month (an English classic novel), but I am looking for ideas for the next months.
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