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... 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.
Lançon’s memoir, subtly translated by Steven Rendall, gives an uneasy feeling of voyeurism at times, such as when he depicts his surroundings once silence fell on the murder scene — the open skull of his friend lying nearby; the discovery of his own injuries; shreds of flesh in place of his lower jaw. And yet, amid the horrific images, literature arises. It is a process that leaves the reader shaken and is one that Lançon admits he himself fails to grasp. “Violence had perverted what it hadn’t destroyed. Like a storm, it had sunk the ship. Memories rose to the surface in disorder . . . on the island where I had washed up, in this little room saturated with paper, blood, bodies, and gunpowder,” he writes.