On 7 January 2015, Philippe Lançon was confronted with a freelance journalist’s dilemma. Should he go straight to Libération, the newspaper for which he was a longstanding cultural critic. Or should he drop in on the way to the editorial meeting of the struggling satirical weekly to which he was a more recent contributor. In the end he decided to stop by at the weekly, which was called Charlie Hebdo.
What happened at that meeting, and the dreadful personal aftermath it wrought, is the subject of Lançon’s powerful memoir, Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo (first published in France last year when it was the recipient of several awards). As the world knows, that morning Said and Chérif Kouachi, a pair of Islamist brothers with a record of terrorist involvement, forced their way into Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office, armed with assault rifles, submachine guns and a pump action shotgun, and slaughtered 12 people and injured 11 others, before fleeing in a getaway car.
But as the attack unfolded, Lançon knew nothing of these facts. He describes what took place in haunting, fractured detail, as a scene of merriment and intellectual cut-and-thrust is transformed, in a matter of seconds, into one of astonishing carnage. After the first lethal volley of shots, he pretended to be dead on the floor, but some irresistible impulse – journalistic curiosity? A fear of the unknown? – made him open his eyes as one of the killers stood over him.
Instead of finishing him off, the killer turned and left the building. Lançon did not know why he was spared. At the time, he thought he’d only suffered a minor injury. In reality, the Kouachis had blown away the lower third of his face. Everything below his upper lip was a gaping hole.
The brutality of the attack stands in disturbing contrast to the subtlety of Lançon’s prose. In one sense, it’s a characteristic response of a Parisian intellectual. To the violence inflicted by the deluded jihadists, he offers literary erudition and analytical reflection. He liberally cites the kind of names that are the bedrock of a certain kind of French education: Chateaubriand, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Foucault – though, unusually, there’s also a significant contribution from Orwell. He’s the kind of guy who, to relieve sexual tension, will read a volume of Saint‑Simon.
The extremity of his condition brings out a bitter taste for paradox. There are plenty of sentences like this one: “Reality no longer seems to be anything more than a denial of reality.” At times, Lançon can lean towards a kind of parody of the French high style, but it’s essentially a book about a man struggling to make sense of his radically transformed world.
He remains hospitalised for over a year, undergoing countless operations to fix his shattered face. And it is this experience – the survival instinct, the desperation, the morphine numbness – that is the focus of Disturbance. Those hoping for a more overtly political book will be disappointed. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was a galvanising event, both for European Islamists and their opponents. In a way, it was savagely clarifying: either you were for free speech or you weren’t.
But there was also an influential section of progressive opinion that, while performing the throat-clearance of denouncing the killers, also suggested that the avowedly leftwing Charlie Hebdo brought the attack on itself, by first publishing the Danish cartoons and then a series of caricatures that mocked Muslims (it also mocked Christians, Jews and other religious groups). They were accused of “punching down”, of ridiculing a minority and, indeed, of racism. As a group of celebrated writers put it, in protesting against an American Pen freedom of expression award to the French magazine, “in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect”.
Such debates don’t really get a look-in here – although Lançon makes an ironic reference to a friend as “a socialist, but of the left – there are still some of those”. He is understandably more interested in his jaw, which continues to leak after several operations, and the social tensions his plight causes among his intimates. At one stage, his Cuban girlfriend accuses him of relishing the celebrity that the attack has brought him. But given that he’s cooped up in a hospital, unable to speak, with a disfigured face, who would deny him the meagre compensation of fame?
The book is remarkably free of anger at either the Kouachis or the ideology that inspired them. Without resorting to polemic, it’s an argument in favour of the intellectual life, of ideas as beautiful abstractions, weaponised only as satire, never as terror. It feels reassuringly rarefied, like an old-fashioned French talking-heads movie. But its weakness is that there is little sense of a world beyond the whitewashed hospital rooms in which he’s treated or the book-lined ones from which he was so horrifically torn.