The prophetic novelist

The prophetic novelist

Anyone who is familiar with the fiction of Michel Houellebecq will surely not have been surprised by the terrorist outrage in Bali. Houellebecq is the ideal chronicler of our disturbed modernity, a raging, blackly comic writer whose stories and novels, written under the influence of Celine, are informed by an acute political sensibility. A former communist, he now believes that all progressive schemes to remake the world are destined to fail. The challenge, instead, in the affluent west, is to adjust to the conditions of boredom and nihilism created by the excesses of our consumer societies, as well to accept the dangers posed by religious extremism in the developing world.

Houellebecq's fiction is notable for its pessimism, its pornography and its prescience. His latest novel, Platform, ends, in an eerie echo of what happened in Bali, with a murderous assault by Islamic militants on a nightclub and leisure complex in south-east Asia. The complex, Eldorador Aphrodite, is frequented, as was the nightclub in Bali, by fun-seeking westerners. Many are killed in the attack, including the narrator's girlfriend, Valerie. As on Bali, sex tourism flourishes on Houellebecq's fictional island, with middle-aged Europeans travelling there in pursuit not only of sun, but also of easy sex and the promise too, perhaps, of a compliant little oriental wife.

Platform was published in France shortly before 11 September last year, but it was only recently translated into English, and published by Heinemann. At the time of its original publication, Houellebecq, in an interview for the magazine Lire, spoke of his huge contempt for Islam and for all other supernatural belief systems. His comments particularly inflamed Muslim clerics in Paris. Soon after the interview, Houellebecq was charged with inciting religious and racial hatred, for which he is now on trial in Paris. At the end of this month, we shall discover if the most daring and singular writer in Europe will be sent to prison, or, more probably, escape with a 45,000-euro fine.

Platform is certainly full of witty, unhinged attacks against Islam - characters are introduced for no other reason than to deliver page-length denunciations of true believers. But Muslims ought not to be unduly offended. Houellebecq is a writer of perpetual attack. Protestants, capitalists, liberal-leftists, the revolutionary generation of 1968, the French, les Anglo-Saxons, hippies, Frederick Forsyth - all these are among his targets.

There is considerable comedy in Houellebecq's wild misanthropy. There is also a peculiar poignancy. His narrators, often heavily drugged or drifting towards madness, are post-political last men, living in a condition of hopeless belatedness. They once believed in something, but now theirs is a generation for whom all illusions have passed. No moral code of restraint determines their lives. And so seeking release from the ennui and drift of their daily lives, often spent imprisoned in air-conditioned towers in choked cities, they are lured to the "orient" by the old-fashioned promise of licentiousness and abandon. But in seeking release from the self, they discover that there is no release: in our globalised world there are always unexpected consequences to be reckoned with - such as the violent return of the excluded and reviled.

Western individualism teaches us that we are free to remake ourselves however we choose, that we are masters of our own destiny. The modernist project taught us that individual consciousness is supreme: that it is not what we do, but what we think that makes us interesting. Houellebecq reminds us that such notions are simply not true. "When all's said and done, the idea of the uniqueness of the individual is nothing more than a pompous absurdity," one character reflects, before adding: "We remember our own lives . . . a little better than a novel we once read. That's about right: a little better, no more."

Reading Michel Houellebecq is a peculiarly enriching experience. It is hard to think of another contemporary writer who shares his moral vision, or conveys with quite the same sense of urgency what it feels like to be alive today in a world ruled by impersonal transnational corporations whose direct enemy is an opaque, impersonal, transnational terrorist network.