Michel Houellebecq: Lanzarote

Pedro Blas Gonzalez

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Michel Houellebecq
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Lanzarote is a colorful vignette that describes the scope of meaninglessness in an apocalyptic age. Even the landscape – the lunar aridity of this Spanish island where the action takes place – is scarred by volcanic activity. Whether virulent satire or the avatar of a “new moral avant-garde,” as the narrator suggests, Lanzarote remains a fine example of Houellebecq’s uncommon prescience in a tasteless age.
Lanzarote’s protagonist is bored. Seeking a vocation to begin the New Year away from Paris, he goes to a “travel professional” for suggestions. The tourism professional, he tells us, has a good understanding of human happiness “or at least your prospect of happiness.” In a world made banal and numb from excessive choices, the job of the tourist professional “is to discover your expectations, your desires, perhaps even your secret hopes,” he goes on. Houellebecq pokes fun at self-possessed travel guides who describe travel packages in terms of “intelligent,” “humanitarian,” “eco-friendly,” as well as those that suggest “authenticity,” and others that are “open to the unfamiliar.” Lanzarote is a work that probes the seemingly infinite possibilities of hedonism.
Restlessness, both moral and spiritual, defines the nexus of Houellebecq’s protagonist, an entity who remains nameless throughout. The author captures this inner ruin in its outward manifestations: people tinkering with electronic devices, changing television channels aimlessly, in short, activities that are defined by their utility in killing time. Houellebecq’s protagonist is a fine example of an adult who is ruled by a haze of self-imposed, cultural attention deficit disorder, though, he would be the last to know it.
Reading the depiction of the protagonist’s life, we get the impression that a vacation will only serve as a mobile form of emptiness. He tells us: “New Year’s Eve was a disaster; I tried to hook up to the Internet but I screwed up. I had just moved; I think I should have reinstalled the cord modem or something like that.” Notice the lack of care and attention to detail in the objects that fulfill his sensual pleasures. He then goes on: “My fruitless tinkering quickly bored me, I fell asleep at about eleven. A postmodern New Year’s eve.” We are reminded of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Is this the future, a banal, hollow man?
He opts for Lanzarote, an island 70 miles off the African coast that is part of the Canary Islands. Preparing for his trip, the protagonist buys popular magazines at Orly airport: Passion Glisse, Paris-Match, Le Nouvel Observateur and Liberation – a varied arsenal to help him further kill time. While on the airplane he tries to interest himself in the contents of his magazines, but instead remembers a television program that he saw the night before where “the debate, in short, simply brought together another bunch of idiots.”
The narrator describes the domain of European travellers. He explains that the famous Michelin guide “whose ingenious system of star ratings for the first time made it possible for the world to be systematically categorized according to its potential pleasures.” Houellebecq is sardonic; his caustic humor is measured and controlled. His description of a mustachioed Belgian tourist named Rudi who demonstrates an “out-and-out fascination with the cactus plant” is rather hilarious.
The protagonist is a “free-spirited,” libertine entity that lets the reader into his head, if not his world, and who never holds back from engaging in any “post-modern” perversity. He becomes intrigued with two German women named Pam and Barbara. As the two women befriend him and Rudi, the exhibitionist core of early twentieth first century hedonism does not waste an opportunity to roar into action.
An empty man, the protagonist finds himself an alien to himself when he tries to reflect. Houellebecq effectively juxtaposes the former’s devil-may-care attitude with the barren geography of Lanzarote. He becomes mesmerized by the terrain: “I lay down, contemplating the conflict, so evident in Lanzarote, between two great forces: the volcano’s creation and the sea’s destruction. It was a pleasing meditation, in which nothing was at stake, to which no conclusion was possible. I continued in this vein for some twenty minutes.” Houellebecq’s hackneyed allusions to “post-modernity” are never in short order: “Though absurdity is amusing for a while, after a certain age it begins to pall.” We are left wondering what age that would be.
Houellebecq’s commentary is scathing and never dull. His take on current European social conditions paints a daunting picture, one which given the recent social upheavals and terrorist acts in France, cannot easily go unnoticed. Rudi tells the protagonist about the crime rate in his native Brussels: “Delinquency was rife; increasingly, gangs of youth attacked passers-by in the middle of shopping centers in broad daylight.” The narrator calls Luxembourg “an assortment of dummy companies over parkland, nothing but P.O. Boxes for companies with a taste for tax evasion.”
The plot gains momentum and added intrigue when Houellebecq introduces a “post-modern” cult of neo-hippies who belong to the Azraelian religion who are convinced that their leader is in contact with extraterrestrials. These Azraelians enlist Rudi, who turns out to be as depraved as the rest of the members. In fact, this is a pre-condition for membership. Rudi ends up going to prison as a pedophile. The cult is fiercely defended by its leader as attempting to “lay the foundations for a new, sacred eroticism of the kind that had disappeared from the Western world.” After hearing of the extent of Rudi’s depravity the protagonist, who’s own depravity is “practical” and “manageable,” offers a sober perspective: “No social status, no relationship could any longer be considered certain.” And then.he ties it all together – the barren, volcanic terrain, contemporary hedonism and its incessant penchant for modish coolness: “We were living in a time in which any advent, any Armageddon was possible.”
It is hardly a coincidence that Houellebecq uses Lanzarote’s blemished landscape as the backdrop for the moral and spiritual destructiveness that fuels the action. At the end of the work we come across an Appendix that tells of the devastating series of earthquakes that destroyed all cultural landmarks on the island and which created its distinctive landscape, between September 1730 and December 28, 1731. The first-person testimony belongs to a father Andres Lorenzo Curbelo. The Appendix, too, is hardly out of place in this work. Could it happen again, the author seems to suggest? And if so, could the next great eruption signify a moral implosion?
In the end we are left pondering whether Lanzarote is satire or an eloquent promotion of vulgarity? If satire, it makes Swift’s Modest Proposal sound like dinner conversation. If, on the other hand, it is a semblance of the depravity that we crave today, then Lanzarote pays homage to Henry Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris, its rightful heir.

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