‘The Possibility of an Island‘, the long-awaited new book by French literary bad boy Michel Houellebecq, went on sale across Europe and the US Wednesday backed by a ringing endorsement from the Raelian cult.
Four years after the release of his bestselling ‘Atomised’, the return of the controversial 47 year-old was hailed as the highpoint of the post-summer publishing season and the book is already a front-runner for France’s top prize the Goncourt in November.
Critics agreed that the 490-page novel Houellebecq’s fourth develops many of the themes explored in his earlier works, with the hero Daniel a morally-exhausted stand-up comic obsessed with sex, ageing and the emptiness of modern experience.
Introducing an element of science fiction, Houellebecq has Daniel join a cult called the Elohimites who promote human cloning and the book alternates between the present day and a world 2000 years in the future inhabited by his neo-human replicas Daniels 23, 24 and 25.
Raelians hail book as ‘intellectual’
The Elohimites are based on the real-life Raelian sect, who hit the headlines in December 2002 with their unsubstantiated claim to have cloned the first human baby. Led by Frenchman Claude Vorilhon, the cult believes that extraterrestrials created life on earth via cloning.
In a statement earlier this week, the Raelian movement praised ‘The Possibility of an Island’, describing Houellebecq as a “top-ranking intellectual who dares to say publicly that he finds Rael sympathetic and that its ideas are interesting.”
“At last a stone in the pool of intolerance of the French intellectual milieu,” it said.
Houellebecq, who attended a Raelian congress two years ago, told Le Monde that he found the sect “well-adapted to modern times, to our leisure-based civilisation. It imposes no code of morality and it promises immortality… For a science fiction fan like me, its ideas are interesting”.
In a sign of the author’s international selling-power, ‘The Possibility of an Island’ appeared in bookshops simultaneously in France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and the US. Houellebecq’s previous works have been translated into 36 languages, making him by far the best-known modern French writer.
Born Michel Thomas in the Indian ocean island of Reunion in 1958, Houellebecq came to literary fame in 1994 with ‘Extension du domaine de la lutte’ (translated as ‘Whatever’), followed in 1998 by ‘Les Particules elementaires’ (‘The Elementary Particles’).
In 2001 ‘Atomised’ which combined sex tourism in Thailand with Islamic terrorism sold 350 000 copies in France, but Houellebecq was taken to court for remarks in a promotional interview in which he attacked Islam as the “stupidest of religions”. He was later acquitted.
Recently he has lived in Ireland and Spain, and he rarely visits Paris.
Opinions divided on latest work
Opinions of ‘The Possibility of an Island’ were divided, with some critics hailing it as Houellebecq’s best work yet but others attacking it as a formulaic and semi-pornographic regurgitation of previous output.
One of France top literary figures Bernard Pivot who is a member of the Goncourt committee described the book as Houellebecq’s “most exciting and most accomplished”, while the influential editor Philippe Sollers said it was “inevitable” that the book win the prize.
“The Houellebecq train is off at top speed. Apart from his extraordinary journey into the madness of a sect, one of the book’s most interesting aspects concerns the dread of aging, the pursuit of the eternal dream of youth, the frantic belief in the omnipotence of sex,” he said.
However two popular newspapers on Wednesday slammed the work. “Our disappointment is in the same measure as our expectation enormous,” said Le Parisien’s critic. France-Soir said Houellebecq “delivers us an indigestible rehash of his ultrapessimistic vision of the future”.