On January 7, 2015, two gunmen forced their way into the Paris offices of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, and killed 12 people and injured 11 others. The newspaper was known for its criticism of individuals, organizations, governments and countries. The staff were egalitarian about whom and what they stridently satirized in images and writing, and because of this drew the attention and anger from many religious, political and ethnic groups. Their office had been attacked before, and was relocated to an unmarked building, with armed guards. With guns firing, the two male attackers identified themselves as belonging to Al-Qaeda.
Ostensibly the book is not about the motives of the terrorists, or about the Charlie Hebdo newspaper, it is about Philippe Lançon’s memory of what happened on that day: the attack, his injuries, surgeries, mental and emotional conditions, and perhap some type of reconciliation. There is nothing at all gruesome in Lançon’s descriptions that are crafted in a style of writing that is similar to Henry James and Marcel Proust, to whom Lançon refers throughout the book. His poetically phrased writing does not trivialize the attack and its aftermath, but microscopically spotlights what his brain can piece together.
His stay, for more than a year, at Les Invalides in Paris, a huge, historical complex of hospitals and museums, requires numerous surgeries to reconstruct the damaged part of his face; psychiatric, physical and occupational therapies; some clashes with an otherwise fine French healthcare system; and reconnections with family, friends, a lover and with the the rest of the outside world. Because he was a regular contributor to Charlie Hebdo, Lançon is assigned a cadre of rotating police officers who guard and shadow him for months.
Lançon provides insight into what it is like to have been physically assaulted and mentally traumatized, whether in a personal attack, an accident or a wartime battle. He remembers the sounds of the automatic weapons, of the faces of the staff around him, of seeing injured colleagues on the floor near by, and of not being aware that he was injured. There is an ongoing stream of consciousness, brought on by the trauma and by medication, that creates the runaway engine of his mind that cannot be stopped. All of this makes it difficult for him to clearly put the scattered pieces of the puzzle together.
His ability as a writer, and more importantly as a journalist, allows him to examine and to express what a trained soldier might not be able, or want to do--dredge up the past. You are not likely to find a soldier, from the greatest generation to those from the recent global battles, who will talk to family or friends about battles on the warfront. This is where the journalist excels and lets us in on what it is like: the attack and the ongoing aftermath.
When treasured, fractured memories of books and writers bubble up, then the seasoned writer regards them with gallows humor:
On January 8, entering room 106, among the tubes I thought of one of Pascal’s sentences. It was a true cliche, but I’d read a lot of Pascal when I was a teenager … thirty-five years later, you find yourself in the hospital, after an attack, that’s what occurs to you: “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”
The book is available in e-media.