“The irruption of naked violence isolates a person from the world and it isolate others from the person who is subjected to it in any case it isolated me…”

Disturbance is Philippe Lançon’s powerful memoir of the long road to healing after being caught up in the terrible terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015. All the more impressive for being told without rancour, resentment, hatred or vitriol. This is a very personal story that never edges toward the polemic although it does deal with the role of the magazine and political significance of the event. This is Lançon’s response to the violence metered out on that fateful day. An intellectual response that champions rational debate and reasoned argument. Every reference to terrorism is measured and calmly delivered but this book you will find is about more than that. Ultimately, Disturbance is a cathartic experience for Lançon and an uplifting one for readers.

On 7th January, 2015, Islamist terrorists Saïd and Chérif Kouachi forced Corinne ‘Coco’ Rey to key them into the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Heavily armed, they began to shooting in the lobby killing their first victim. Taking the lift to the boardroom, where an editorial meeting was underway, the two men singled out the editor Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier before opening fire on the other assembled journalists and cartoonists. The Kouachis then fled the building killing a policeman in the street and inflicting other casualties before being stopped. In all, twelve people were killed that day and eleven others wounded. The attack shocked the world and led to the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ campaign, there was a national day of mourning four days later. Charlie Hebdo is best described as a secular publication with left leanings and an anti-religious stance. It was targeted over cartoons seen by the Kouachi brothers, and many others, as blasphemous and anti-Islamic.

Lançon’s account of the attack is vivid but unembellished, the horror speaks for itself. There is no doubt that the brutality will be imprinted on his mind forever, he witnessed his friends die. Lançon doesn’t try to order events, he relates what happened in the dream-like, fragmentary, way as it seemed to unfold for him. He asks can this really be happening? Is this a joke of some kind? Then the shooting starts. He tries to recall it as it felt at the time, the incomprehensible, the slow motion thinking. There is no tidying up for readers.

For Lançon, surviving the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a matter of luck, he was hit three times and wounded very badly. He played dead but at the very moment he should have been still (invisible), when an armed attacker was standing over him, he couldn’t help but open his eyes. The man didn’t shoot him again, he turned and walked away. Why? It’s impossible to know the answer now, but it is something the author ruminates on in Disturbance. Lançon’s subsequent physical recovery is ongoing but the reconstructive surgery took two years. Of course, survival is not just about the physical recovery but also about easing the mental scarring. Lançon admits there were times when the idea of re-joining society, stepping back out into the world, finally leaving the hospital terrified him. Survival is about coming to terms with the attack, with the loss of friends and survivor guilt.

Lançon suffered severe injuries, the lower half of his face was destroyed and reconstructive surgery took two years and a number of painful operations. Meanwhile, Lançon resumed working for Libération and Charlie Hebdo. In large part Disturbance is the memoir of Lançon’s medical recovery, he becomes an expert on medical terms. There are plenty of insightful passages on the reaction of family and friends to Lançon’s injuries and his personal struggle with what had happened to him, the disfigurement, overcoming a pointless but nonetheless real vanity. More than this Disturbance demonstrates a will to recover, a resilience and spirit that trumps the frailty of the human body. He compares himself to the disfigured soldiers of the first world war, images we are all familiar with, the first time serious plastic surgery attempted to rebuild faces. Lançon takes us through the daily battles and the pain, he can’t help but reflect on the irony of having police protection, as we say, shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Lançon demonstrates extraordinary fortitude it’s a chastening experience for the reader.

Lançon worked for Libération and Charlie Hebdo as a critic. He tells us about the trip to the Quartiers d’Ivry theatre with his friend Marianne to see Twelfth Night, the subject of a review he was working on when the Charlie Hebdo incident occurred:

“criticism has allowed me to comprehend–or try to comprehend–what I saw and to give it an ephemeral form by writing about it.”

I extrapolate from that and reading this book that this account was a way for Lançon to process what happened on that awful day in January 2015.

There has always been a strong bond between the French people and their intellectuals, they have for centuries had a public role, think of Zola during the Dreyfus case or Sartre, de Beauvoir and the Left Bank crowd in twentieth century Parisian life. It’s a bond that has been damaged in recent years by the emergence of pseudo intellectuals using social media and TV to play on the divisions in society, proffering an Islamophobic narrative (Houllebecq – Submission). Lançon is quick to condemn this kind of vitriol, believing Charlie Hebdo simply to be exercising the right to freedom of expression. To what extent Charlie Hebdo did or did not espouse Islamophobia will remain a matter of debate. However, I have no doubt thought that Lançon is right when he says the response to words should always be words not violence.

Disturbance is the winner of the Prix Femina, Prix du Roman-News, Prix des Prix Littéraires and the Prix Renaudot – Jury Selection. Translated from the French, le lambeau, by Steven Rendall.

Paul Burke 4/4

Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo by Philippe Lançon
Europa 9781787701892 pbk Nov 2019