Culture and Thought -- Books: Stranger in Paradise --- Fact Can Be Just as Nasty as Fiction

By Salil Tripathi

The Asian Wall Street Journal P11
(Copyright (c) 2002, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

A year after the bloody battle of Dien Bien Phu, which effectively ended the French adventure in Indochina, the English novelist Graham Greene published "The Quiet American," an eerily prescient novel about the imminent American involvement in Vietnam. It was not until 1964 that the United States Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that authorized the White House to take effective steps to defend U.S. interests in Southeast Asia, leading to formal U.S. engagement in the Vietnam War. Many who have read Greene's 1955 novel have argued that if only President John Kennedy's Harvard-educated elite cabinet had read "The Quiet American," the U.S. may have understood Vietnamese nationalism better. The war may still have been inevitable or necessary, but there would have been fewer surprises.

One could say the same about the work of the brilliant yet bleak French novelist Michel Houellebecq. Anyone who has read his latest novel, "Platform" (Knopf, 362 pages, $25), published in French weeks before the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, would have anticipated the terrorist outrage at the night club in Bali on October 12, and the violent upsurge surrounding the Miss World contest in Nigeria as well as the attack on the Kenyan resort last week. The English edition was published weeks before the Bali massacre.

In "Platform" Mr. Houellebecq tells the story about a French bureaucrat, also called Michel, whose father is murdered by a Muslim immigrant in rural France. His father, Michel discovers, was having an affair with his housemaid, the sister of the assassin who was seeking revenge for shaming his family. Michel's response to the murder and to his discovery of his father's affair is surprisingly calm, reminiscent of Albert Camus. "The Outsider," as the 1946 English translation of Camus's "L'Etranger" (1942), was called, began: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: `Your mother passed today. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy.' Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday." Mr. Houellebecq begins "Platform" with similar detachment: "Father died last year. I don't subscribe to the theory by which we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult. As I stood before the old man's coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me."

To take a break, Michel goes to Thailand on a vacation, where he meets a French woman, Valerie. Nothing happens there, for Michel is busy in Thai massage parlors, but on his return to Paris he passionately falls in love with Valerie, a successful, ambitious executive in a travel company. They develop a moving, sensual relationship, and months later go to Thailand again, where Valerie decides they will ultimately make their home. The dream is shattered, as Michel sees Valerie perish before his eyes at the resort where they are staying. She dies when Islamic fundamentalists attack the resort because they are violently against modernity that the West personifies. This is the modernity not only of the kind that radical Islam would gladly outlaw, like go-go bars of Patpong and night clubs along Phuket and Pattaya, but also of consuming alcohol, wearing miniskirts (or less), dancing and kissing in public, of consenting adults making love on the beach. Their revulsion of the behavior, which they characterize as amoral, stems from their distaste of individual liberty, of equality for women and of liberal democracy, which threatens their authoritarian, antediluvian, one-truth-fits-all philosophy which their clerics claim is the true path to salvation and paradise.

Mr. Houellebecq's disregard for the politically correct is now legendary. Michel takes delight when "a Palestinian terrorist, or a Palestinian child or a Palestinian pregnant woman had been gunned down in the Gaza Strip." Mr. Houellebecq has himself called Islam a dumb religion and the Koran's prose inelegant. That may not be terribly sensitive, but having such opinions is not a crime. Yet some Islamic groups in France thought so, and sued Mr. Houellebecq. To its credit, the French judiciary ruled in Mr. Houellebecq's favor; despite all odds in our touchy-feely multicultural times, France upheld the fundamental principles of free speech.

As Christopher Hitchens pointed out recently, "An author is not ipso facto responsible for the thoughts of his characters. The supposedly blasphemous reflections about Muhammad's wives in Salman Rushdie's `The Satanic Verses,' for example, occur during the dream of a man described as mentally deranged."

In the case of Mr. Houellebecq, Mr. Rushdie rightly reminds us that, "If an individual in a free society no longer has the right to say openly that he prefers one book to another, then that society no longer has the right to call itself free. Fences cannot be erected around ideas, philosophies, attitudes or beliefs. [Mr. Houellebecq's] accusers claim to be acting in part out of their concern that in the post-9/11 atmosphere, Mr. Houellebecq's utterances and writings will increase antagonism to Muslims in the West. In this they have miscalculated badly. It is not Mr. Houellebecq but their assault upon the writer that runs the risk of creating that backlash in these sensitive times."

Like disillusioned former communists who saw their god fail in the 1950s, Mr. Houellebecq is a former leftist who believes that all progressive schemes to transform the world are doomed to self-destruct. While the West is prosperous, the prosperity has brought with it a sense of boredom, forcing companies to create new products and services to keep us in a perpetual trance, seeking instant gratification. In "Platform," Mr. Houellebecq places the tourism industry under his microscope and, with a marvelous eye for detail, describes its hubris.

A French hotel chain has launched a new line of hotels, targeting adult tourists who want to pursue pleasure through no-questions-asked sex tourism. The hotel in southern Thailand that the Islamists attack is part of that chain and is appositely called Aphrodite. Middle-aged, often pot-bellied Europeans spurned by ambitious, career-driven, passionless Western women arrive at the hotel pursuing sun, sand and sex, and dream of acquiring compliant, cute little Asian wives.

"Platform" is not only bleak, it also borders on voyeuristic pornography: There are graphic passages describing erotic experiments of Michel and Valerie, and sometimes other women too -- a passenger on a train, a maid at a Cuban resort, etc. Remember this is a French novel, a book from the culture where menage-a-trois is a lifestyle choice. Ignore these smarmy passages and the reader will discover an insightful mind reading the subterranean undercurrents in Southeast Asia.

Maybe the insurgents in Philippine Mindanao, the extremists in Southern Thailand and the bombers of Bali are aberrations in an otherwise remarkably syncretic region. And maybe not. After all, Indonesia was justly proud of the tolerant nature of abangan Islam and its Javanese traditions, whose supremacy is now being tested by the more militant senteri Islam and its imported Arabic influences. The main Muslim political movements maintained a pacific exterior for a long time, but that ethos is now severely attacked by the more robust, intolerant, fundamentalist Islam. Journalists have reported this gradual deterioration episodically but consistently, yet Southeast Asia's complex narrative has had to compete with more urgent events. Mr. Houellebecq reveals the fatal consequences of a world seen only through the lens of CNN.

Beneath Mr. Houellebecq's apparent contempt for charlatans and anyone else he may not agree with, there is a serious undercurrent. There is helplessness in his rants and anger. French novelists, like Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and others in the post-war era, have been particularly adept at capturing this listlessness. Mr. Houellebecq is the latest in that fine tradition which makes us question this drift in the manners, customs and moral codes of our time.

Straitlaced in high office towers, staring at lines of cars in a traffic jam, many of us buy products from identical supermarkets and featureless malls and are enticed by oriental charms through exotic travel brochures with pristine golf courses and women clad in sarongs and flowers enticing with a seductive smile. Yet, while providing release from humdrum lives, the freedom that pleasure seekers discover is not only ephemeral but can lead to horrendous consequences because of unintended cultural insensitivity. And yet, respecting that cultural difference does not mean cladding our women in purdahs and restricting displays of affection in the privacy of rooms where no one is watching. Liberalism implies mutual respect; fundamentalism is, by definition, ill-liberal.

Western individualism is based on that liberal principle, that we are free, that we can reinvent ourselves and can write the story of our lives. Mr. Houellebecq shows us the limits others try to impose on that vision, and how their alternate universe is antithetical to freedom. That's the big idea behind the novel that has threatened his critics enough to unsuccessfully sue him.
Mr. Tripathi, based in London, is completing his first novel.