Last January 7, newstand issues of the Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo carried a cover cartoon lampooning Michel Houellebecq and his novel Soumission (Submission), released for sale that day. The novel imagines France in 2022 under the rule of an Islamic party. Houelle­becq’s scenario was pilloried as alarmist bigotry in some quarters, praised as prophetic in others.

That same morning, two men broke into the Charlie Hebdo offices and killed 12 people, intending to avenge the magazine’s irreverent treatment of the Islamic prophet Mu­ham­mad. One of Houellebecq’s good friends was among the murdered. His publisher’s office was evacuated and he himself briefly went into hiding outside Paris. The next day, the French prime minister weighed in: “France is not Michel Houellebecq.” It is not “intolerance, hate, and fear.”

These events, in which the writer seemed to have become a character in his own novel, cemented the country’s obsession with a book in which fictional figures rub shoulders with contemporary political personalities. Billed as a cautionary tale about Islam’s threat to subjugate Europe, Submission is more an introspective tract on the West’s ambivalence about survival.