Saturday, February 2, 2019

Ray Taras

Raymond Taras is Professor of Political Science at Tulane University. In 2019 he is Fulbright Distinguished Chair at Australian National University in Canberra.

Taras's new book is Nationhood, Migration and Global Politics: An Introduction.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
I read Michel Houellebecq for two reasons. One is for the ethnic pecking orders he establishes in his novels. The other is for the pornographic descriptions he provides. Frequently the two go hand-in-hand - he is such a provocateur! I do not read him for his literary genius.

The holy grail for many French writers is Marcel Proust so Houellebecq’s latest shock-value contribution, Sérotonine, seeks to amend his book titles. Replacing In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (the ornate second of seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past) is the blunt Donald Trump-like substitution of “young, moist pussies.” As Houellebecq observes, “it seems to me to simplify the debate without destroying its poetry (what can be more beautiful, more poetic, that a pussy which becomes damp?).”

“Poetic” is rarely a term used to apply to this enfant terrible; vulgarités would seem more apposite. That said, he is a man who is aware that the most erotic times of his life are over with. As he puts it about his incongruously-named protagonist Florent-Claude, a new generation of anti-depressants has led to such side effects as nausea, loss of the libido drive, impotence. Of these “I have never suffered from nausea.”

Serotonin levels are affected by drugs like Captorix. They inhibit the synthesis of testosterone which in men range from 2.5 to 10 milligrams daily (women’s daily average is just 0.25). So the doctor accordingly scribbles the names of some women who can help Florent-Claude out, if he decides to reduce his Captorix dosage.

In 2006 on this blog I reviewed The Possibility of an Island in which one of Houellebecq’s main purposes was to rubbish East European women. In his words, “most of the girls were Romanian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian, in other words from one of those absurd countries that emerged from the implosion of the Eastern bloc.” The pornography industry “remained in the hands of shady Hungarian, or even Latvian, jobbers”. Aging tourists at a holiday club are entertained by a Miss Bikini Contest where the main contestants were a leggy teenage girl from Budapest and “a platinum-blond Russian, very curvaceous in spite of her fourteen years, who looked a right tart” and eventually “began stuffing her hand down her bikini bottom.”

Times change and he now takes swipes at Malians starting on their trips as undocumented workers. Florent-Claude would never let his cash go to Romanians now in the country. “The Dutch are truly a nation of whores, a race made up of multilingual opportunistic business people.” Yuzu, his onetime Japanese girlfriend, stands out for her sexual exploits, including a mini canine gang-bang. The narrator feels sorry for the dogs. Moreover “for a Japanese woman - after what I had observed of the mentality of these people - sleeping with a Westerner is nearly like copulating with an animal.”

Since I am supposed to teach political science, Houellebecq’s novels give me a pulse of French contestation - the clash of rival perspectives, at times violent. Normandy is in the foreground. The narrator bonds with Aymeric, a nobleman from a distinguished family, whose wife has forced him to build summer cottages to rent out so as to pay the bills. Aymeric is engrossed in rifles and weapons which lead him to organize a protest movement. His wife Cécile abandons him and Normandy to move to London with a world-famous pianist. Just as “this huge slut was passionate for a life in London,” “The European Union also was an enormous slut, imposing quotas on milk.”

The tragedy of Aymeric is that, in the face of so many suicides of family farmers unable to earn a living wage, he fights on behalf of the French peasantry. The novel presciently anticipates the gilets jaunes challenging the Macron presidency from the provinces: “So when the cisterns of milk would arrive 2-3 days later, from Poland or Ireland, what could they do? Block the road with rifles? Even if they achieve that, what would they do if the cisterns were guarded by the security forces? Open fire?” Houellebecq elegantly sets out the case for “the producers of apricots from Roussillon who would not stand a chance given the flood of Argentine apricots.” Free trade always wins in today’s world; for the author it is a devastating blow to sustainable development.

Made Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur on the first day of 2019, the author is convinced that his latest novel is a romance. So there is pitiable Camille, the unacknowledged love of Florent-Claude’s life, who meanders into it at various points in time, regardless of the ethnic and misogynistic hierarchies that Houellebecq constructs.

Behind his crotchetiness and insouciance, this best-selling writer cares deeply for his main character. Even as serotonin takes its toll and anti-depressants lead to la-la land, an added driver of the plot is the narrator’s futile search for a hotel that would allow guests to smoke. He is, literally, cornered and choked off – a fitting allegory of Europe approaching endgame.
Visit Raymond Taras's website, and learn more about Nationhood, Migration and Global Politics at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Nationhood, Migration and Global Politics.

--Marshal Zeringue