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Review: 'Surviving Charlie Hebdo' paints a powerful portrait of pain, trauma and persistence

Philippe Lancon, a columnist for the magazine devastated by a massacre in 2015, has delivered a moving, poignantly personal memoir

Writer and journalist Philippe Lancon survived the attack against satirical French magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' in 2015. EPA
Writer and journalist Philippe Lancon survived the attack against satirical French magazine 'Charlie Hebdo' in 2015. EPA

On the evening of January 6, 2015, Philippe Lancon was in good spirits. He met a friend at a theatre on the outskirts of Paris and enjoyed a performance of Twelfth Night. He was excited about a new opportunity that had come his way: in the next few days he was moving to the US, where he would teach literature at Princeton University for a semester and be reunited with his girlfriend. His immediate future looked bright.

Or so he thought. Lancon was a journalist – a culture critic for the French daily newspaper Liberation but also a columnist for the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – and when he visited the offices of that latter publication the following morning, his world was turned upside down. The grisly events made global headlines. Two French terrorist brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, each dressed in black and armed with AK-47s, burst into the magazine’s editorial meeting and opened fire at close range. In a killing spree that lasted a little more than two minutes, they left 12 dead and 11 injured. One of those seriously wounded was Lancon.

Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo by Philippe Lançon. Europa Editions
Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo by Philippe Lancon. Europa Editions

He lived to tell the tale. Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo makes for a powerful reading experience. It is both a brave account of an unimaginable ordeal and an eloquent depiction of a long and arduous aftermath – one involving constant battles against physical disfigurement, mental trauma and existential dislocation. The recipient of a slew of French literary prizes, Lancon’s book now appears in an elegant English translation by Steven Rendall.

After an almost unbearably tense build-up, Lancon shares his broken memories of the day in question and the scene of the crime. He was shot three times. He played dead in a pool of blood. When a stray impulse made him open his eyes, he saw one of the killers standing over him “like a bull eyeing the immobile torero whom he has just gored”. Miraculously, he was spared, or at least considered as good as dead.

But although Lancon survived what he quickly learnt was a massacre, he suffered horrifically. The Kouachis destroyed the lower third of his face, mangling his mouth and leaving a crater where his jaw and chin should have been. He recalls surveying the carnage while being carried out of the room, and telling the dead: “You’re lucky, for you it’s over. For me, it’s just beginning.”

The rest – and indeed, the bulk – of the book is devoted to what Lancon terms “the slow process of mending”. In hospital for more than a year, he describes daily struggles and regular procedures to reconstruct his damaged face. He forms bonds with nurses and surgeons and gets used to the Beretta-wielding security detail outside his door. From his bed he helps the police with their investigation by replaying what happened. Loved ones come in and out of his “cocoon” and sit by his side.

Lancon turns to literature for both comfort and meaning. Tapping into the likes of Baudelaire, Pascal, Racine, Proust and even the adventures of Tintin, he enriches his narrative with choice quotes which mirror his predicament or encapsulate his state of mind. And then one day, on the eve of a major operation, he finds strength and words and writes his first column for the newly resurrected Charlie Hebdo.

Disturbance is entirely Lancon’s story. He offers no case study of the Kouachi brothers, nor any discourse on terrorism. He says that he and his colleagues at Charlie Hebdo were united in their refusal “to take an appalling world seriously” – and yet that frivolous approach had frequently offended some. Lancon resists grappling with the ramifications of censorship and free speech, an omission that may leave readers seeking a bigger picture feeling short-changed.

A woman, grasping a symbolic pencil, is moved to tears as people gather in front of Notre Dame cathedral for a minute of silence in memory of the 12 victims in the January 7, 2015, massacre at the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Ian Langsdon / EPA / January 8, 2015
A woman, grasping a symbolic pencil, is moved to tears as people gather in front of Notre Dame cathedral for a minute of silence in memory of the 'Charlie Hebdo' victims in 2015. EPA

Those who accept at the outset that the author’s priority is the personal over the political will be awed and moved by a story of turbulence, endurance and transformation. We follow Lancon on his tumultuous journey from victim-survivor to living being. There are poignant moments when he remembers fallen friends. Sometimes he is ground down by guilt or despair, other times he vents his frustration at his lack of progress. Less fortunate patients in his ward put his plight in perspective, and news from the outside world about demonstrations and the solidarity slogan, “Je suis Charlie”, gives him hope.

Along with an array of literary references, Lancon blends in many philosophical thoughts and historical meditations. However, his memoir is at its most absorbing when he is in the spotlight, relating his heroic efforts to pick up the pieces, cope with the scars and get his life back on track.

Disturbance: Surviving Charlie Hebdo by Philippe Lancon is published by Europa Editions

Updated: November 30, 2019 12:33 PM

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