Sunday 15 December 2019

Disturbance: A war cry from a survivor of Charlie Hebdo attack

Non-fiction: Disturbance

Philippe Lançon

Europa Editions, paperback, 448 pages, €17

Darragh McManus’s books include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through'and 'The Polka Dot Girl'
Darragh McManus’s books include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through'and 'The Polka Dot Girl'
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Any terrorist attack is, of course, shocking and awful, often on a level beyond what simple logic should dictate. Large numbers of war deaths can blur into a sort of abstraction in the mind; but there's something intimate, and thus more unsettling, about smaller-scale terrorism. It feels closer to home.

In the case of the Charlie Hebdo murders, in January 2015, that was true in more ways than one. Watching the coverage, I remembered how I'd planned to move to Paris a few years previously to work in print media there.

So that could have been me, I thought; I could have scored a bit of freelancing work with the satirical magazine, I could have been in the office that terrible morning, I could have been among the dead or wounded. Easy as that.

I realise I'm committing one of the grossest sins of modern times here: the solipsistic placing of oneself at the heart of an atrocity which didn't involve you, piggybacking on others' pain. But lack of involvement does not preclude psychological effect. Which explains why, at the time, I got more angry than usual with all those weasel-worded "they brought it on themselves somehow" justifications for the massacre; and why Philippe Lançon's memoir, Disturbance, wormed its way into my mind so deeply.

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Disturbance by Philippe Lançon
Disturbance by Philippe Lançon

A critic, columnist and reporter with Charlie and the daily paper Libération, Lançon was in the conference room on that infamous morning when two Islamist zealots rushed in, shooting indiscriminately, revenge for some presumed slight or disrespect to their ideology. Twelve people were killed, several wounded. Lançon was among the latter, and in this book - subtitled Surviving Charlie Hebdo - he has written a brilliant account of the attack and his long recuperation, physical and mental.

Part of Lançon's face was blown off and he's had to endure years of surgery, problems and discomforts. Much of Disturbance is taken up with nuts-and-bolts detailing of the process, and how it emotionally impacted him and his loved ones.

The mental aspect is the more interesting. Lançon comes across as extremely intelligent, a deep thinker, hugely well-read (literature provides great solace during some very difficult moments).

His clever, contemplative mind has created a memoir of unusual depth and perspicacity. Disturbance could have been merely a retelling of events, with a surface-level gloss of "how this made me feel, then and now" - which would have still been a worthwhile read. But Lançon transforms base reportage and memoir into a rarefied form of art that at times feels more like poetry, even music, than prose.

This book is closer to something like Proust than the run-of-the-mill "I survived this terrible thing" misery-lit. Lançon drifts back and forth through space and time, memories of grandparents or adolescent reading habits or the failure of his marriage through infertility intermingling with a week-by-week diary of how his body, and soul, came back from the brink of extinction.

In the midst of sharp-edged panic, fear of the killers returning, the humiliations and tedium of a failing physiological system, the book veers off into convoluted digressions, strange allusions, tantalising recollections. The mind, it seems, does not work in a linear way, even under such life-and-death duress.

The atmosphere is detached in some parts, dreamlike in others. His description of the attack itself is short and incredibly powerful: the closest approximation, in words, to a mind going into shock that I've ever read.

In some ways, time ceased to have any meaning when the jihadists struck. The old Philippe Lançon died, in a sense, that morning. This is a different Philippe, stumbling through a mysterious existential afterworld - but, for all that, profoundly connected to that other self, if not quite the same person.

Yet Disturbance is also a loud war cry: against the death cult of religious zealotry, and for life, complex and messy and unsatisfying as it often is. The terrorists are reduced, and rightly so, to little more than a depressing assemblage of ignorance, stupidity, violence and horror. They have nothing good to contribute to the world.

Disturbance, and the bravery and moral honesty of Lançon displayed therein, are the antidote to pernicious mindlessness like that. This is humanity, this is civilisation, this is art and family and beauty and love. This is more than just surviving, it's triumphing.

Darragh McManus's books include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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