Ultimately, this is a book about dignity. It begins with a savage and cruel inhumanity, but is really about rediscovering what humanity means and how human beings can withstand evil. For this reason, Disturbance is above all a monument to courage.
It is to Lançon’s credit that there is very little about politics in the book.
Disturbance is a hard book, but with no unusual bitterness or false simplicities. More than an account of a semi-recovery, it is also a magnificent tribute. Not just to Lançon’s murdered journalistic colleagues, but to the whole threatened tribe. All those disliked, praised, contentious, opinionated, learned men and women who can never be told what to say, who know that the door may one day burst open, and who just hope that if it does they will face their enemy as the staff of Charlie did: standing on their feet, pencils in hand, mid-flow.
Just seven days after the attack, Lançon published an article which was, he says, “the first time in 30 years as a journalist that I’d written about myself in a newspaper”. This memoir, though, is an intimate revelation, not only of his relationships with his friends and the hospital staff who care for him, but also of his own rich cultural life, always in the company of Pascal and Baudelaire, reading Proust, Kafka’s Letters to Milena and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, listening to Bach (The Art of Fugue and The Well-Tempered Clavier) even as he was operated upon.
This engrossing, beautifully written book about finding a way forward is not just a remarkable document but an inspiration to others in quite different plights. Nothing else has touched me in quite the same way this year.
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.
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.