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Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo by Philippe Lancon - book review

Author: David Sexton
Newspaper: Evening Standard
Date: Nov 14 2019

On the morning of January 7, 2015, Philippe Lançon was thinking about Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Submission, about France turning Islamic, was published that day. Lançon had reviewed it in Libération, one of the papers for which he worked, and was scheduled to interview him the following Saturday.

Heading out, he chose to call in first at the editorial meeting of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine for which he also wrote a column. There everybody was talking about Houellebecq too. Then came “a sharp sound like a firecracker”.

Islamist terrorists Said and Cherif Kouachi burst into the office, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others with automatic weapons in just two minutes before escaping. Lançon fell to the floor, hit at least three times. He describes the confusion he felt at the time with extraordinary precision: realising there was a man walking around the room, firing and saying “Allahu Akbar!” each time, getting nearer to him. “I closed my eyes, then opened them again, like a child who thinks no one will see him if he plays dead.” His head was lying in such a pool of blood that the killer apparently decided he didn’t need to finish him off. There was silence. The attackers had gone.

Another journalist approached him, “the first living, intact person that I saw appear, the first who made me feel to what point those who approached me, now, came from another planet — the planet where life goes on.” Taking out his mobile phone, he glimpsed his face reflected on the screen. He was disfigured, his jaw “a crater of torn, hanging flesh”.

“What remained of my gums and teeth was laid bare and the whole — that combination of face that was three-quarters intact and one part destroyed — had turned me into a monster.” As he was stretchered out, he heard a fireman shout: “That’s a war wound!”

Lançon dedicates the first 100 pages of his book to that day. The 400 that follow describe how he survived the year that followed in hospital, having numerous gruelling operations while under constant police protection, ultimately having his jaw reconstructed by his fibula being grafted on to his jawbone and skin from his thigh, grafted on to that.

It is extraordinary how he combines the closest possible account of the physical ordeal he underwent with a no less affecting account of the intellectual life that enabled him to put himself back together, to rejoin the living, in other ways.

Just seven days after the attack, Lançon published an article which was, he says, “the first time in 30 years as a journalist that I’d written about myself in a newspaper”. This memoir, though, is an intimate revelation, not only of his relationships with his friends and the hospital staff who care for him, but also of his own rich cultural life, always in the company of Pascal and Baudelaire, reading Proust, Kafka’s Letters to Milena and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, listening to Bach (The Art of Fugue and The Well-Tempered Clavier) even as he was operated upon.

This engrossing, beautifully written book about finding a way forward is not just a remarkable document but an inspiration to others in quite different plights. Nothing else has touched me in quite the same way this year.

It is very little about terrorism. But at the first society party Lançon attends in his recovery, he finally meets Houellebecq, whom he describes as a wreck. “While we were murmuring a few barely comprehensible words about the attack and the dead, he looked at me fixedly and recited this verse from Matthew: ‘Men of violence take it by force.’ I went home a few minutes later.