Philippe Lançon, who was among the wounded in the terrorist attack, recounts the massacre and traces its aftermath in his life and in the lives of many others, writes Dwight Garner.
Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo
By Philippe Lançon; Translated by Steven Rendall; Publisher: Europa Editionsl
Pages: 473; Price: $28
The writers and artists of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly newspaper, had a talent for disturbing the peace. They gave themselves over mentally, especially during assignment meetings, to mischief and absurdity and boredom-breaking and corrosive antireligious sentiment. Their enemies: sham, cant, pretense, the flattening out of feeling.
Nearly any issue of Charlie Hebdo could by comparison make the wits at The Onion, the invaluable but milder U.S. satirical publication, seem as if they were putting on a mini-golf course.
It was during a Charlie Hebdo brainstorming session, on the morning of Jan. 7, 2015, that two gunmen claiming allegiance to the Islamic State Group forced themselves inside the magazine’s offices in Paris and slaughtered 12 people. Eleven others were wounded.
The carnage was payback, in the terrorists’ addled minds, for cartoons that Charlie Hebdo had printed — caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, whose depiction is forbidden in many interpretations of Islam. The paper’s editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, a cartoonist known as Charb, was among the dead. “We have to carry on,” he once said, “until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism.”
Among the gravely wounded in the attack was critic and novelist Philippe Lançon, who was in his early 50s. He’s now written a powerful and deeply civilised memoir, Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo, which recounts the massacre and traces its aftermath in his life and in the lives of many others.
Lançon almost skipped the Charlie Hebdo meeting that morning. He had a theater review due at Libération, the daily newspaper Jean-Paul Sartre helped to found in 1973. Lançon planned to write his review at the Libération offices.
He rode his bicycle, and left it chained outside Charlie Hebdo. He’d just pop in. He was upbeat. He had plans to travel to Cuba the following month. In the fall, he was going to teach a literature class at Princeton, “with a feeling of complete illegitimacy,” on novels about Latin American dictators.
To a bookish Frenchman, Princeton was thrilling not merely as “the university of Einstein and Oppenheimer,” but “also of Faulkner’s great first translator, Maurice-Edgar Coindreau.” The trip would allow him to spend real time with his girlfriend, Gabriela, who lived in New York City.
The writers and artists seated around the Charlie Hebdo conference table barely had time to duck before the gunmen were upon them. As he fell to the floor, Lançon was hit by at least three bullets; one tore off most of his jaw. He opened his eyes and found himself in a hot pool of blood and brains. He played dead to survive.
After a pulverizing account of the shootings, “Disturbance” pivots to become the story of a long and difficult recovery. Lançon would spend nearly a year in two hospitals, notably the ancient and legendary Pitié Salpêtrière in the 13th Arrondissement. This place nearly becomes a character itself in this memoir.
Over the course of nearly three years, Lançon had 17 operations. Bone was taken from his right leg to construct a new jaw. Skin on his neck had to be “inflated” and stretched, to cover and compose the lower portion of his face. There were many setbacks. Would he eat solid food again?
Lançon is a sensitive man with a well-stocked mind, and he’s a steady companion on the page. This is not one of those slim, pared-down memoirs — like Sonali Deraniyagala’s “Wave” or Jean-Dominique Bauby’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — of catastrophe and attempted recovery.
Lançon is, in his mellow way, a maximalist. Like Proust, who’s among his favorite writers, he will not be hurried. His cardinal humors are tolerant. This memoir takes more goat paths than highways as he considers friendships and books and meals and sex and morality and journalism and caregivers and toilets and the music of Bach.
I did not wish this nearly 500-page book were any longer. It has its longueurs. But I was moved and provoked by it, and I always looked forward to picking it up again.
Lançon’s life had been flattened. To witness him try to put it back together is like watching a farmer picking up still-warm nails after both his house and barn have been burned to the ground.
He is, in this adroit translation from the French by Steven Rendall, a gentle humorist. His first thought, upon sensing that his teeth are marbles in his mouth, is to feel pity for his dentist. He consumes a dish he refers to as “the gazpacho of melancholy.” He repeatedly refers to one of his oozing wounds as “the cutlet.” One nurse is “as phlegmatic as a gnu.”
At the same time, he lives in a state of constant anxiety. He fears terrorists will return. He imagines them outside the hospital windows, or stalking its halls. He is guarded by policemen, who arrive in shifts, with Beretta rifles.
He is disgusted by Islamist fanatics. (“Who were these zombies? What zone were they returning from?”) He’s a liberal man who senses that the political left, as regards religious fundamentalists, has its head up its own hindquarters. He fears “total war” and “extinction,” not just of Western values but of civilization itself.
Lançon was cheered by the spontaneous free-speech rallies in the Paris streets after the shootings. Everyone looked good on Instagram holding a “Je Suis Charlie” placard. He also thought the rallies were a bit ironic. He points out, not without bitterness, that on the early morning of Jan. 7, “few people in France were prepared to say ‘I am Charlie.’ ”
The magazine had lost its media friends, and much of its importance, after it first printed cartoons of Muhammad in 2006. Lampooning Islam was widely conflated with racism. In what might be this memoir’s decisive paragraph, he writes, like a dentist scraping around a nerve:
“This was a crucial moment: Most newspapers, and even some famous for their graphics, distanced themselves from a satirical weekly that published these caricatures in the name of freedom of expression. Some of them did so out of a declared concern about good taste; others because speaking truth to Muslims might drive them to despair.”
He continues: “This lack of solidarity was not merely a professional and moral disgrace. By isolating and pointing the finger at Charlie, it helped make the latter the Islamists’ target.” This memoir is about the principles Lançon finds to be worth upholding and defending, even in the face of death.
“Disturbance” is an awfully anodyne title for a book like this one. He might have borrowed this one from Doris Lessing: “Briefing for a Descent Into Hell.”
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