The Theatre Critic Who Survived the Paris Massacre

Le Lambeau
by Philippe Lançon
Gallimard, 2018, 512 pages, 21 euros

On Twelfth Night the Paris theatre critic went to a performance of Twelfth Night. In the darkness he wrote into his notebook the words of the clown Festin: “Nothing that is so, is so.” He was unfamiliar with the play and the director offered to send him a copy of his own translation, which the players had used. At home he watched a television interview with Michel Houellebecq, whose new book Soumission was to be published the following day. He slept between sheets which needed changing—he is very particular about bed sheets. Next morning, as you know, a third of his face was shot away.

The book Philippe Lançon (above) has written is called Le Lambeau—meaning a piece of ripped material, a scrap of flesh torn from a body, or the surgical flaps taken from one part of the body to restore another part. All three apply to Lançon, a survivor of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Published in April, Le Lambeau went straight into the French best-seller lists and was still there at the beginning of November.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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On Wednesday January 7, 2015, Lançon was up about eight o’clock. In the untidy book-littered rented apartment where he had lived for twenty-five years, clothes moths were flying around the curtains. Going downstairs, he collected that day’s edition of Libération, a left-wing daily, from his letter-box—he is an arts and theatre journalist for it and Charlie Hebdo. On this day, before he read it, Lançon used it to swat the moths—their little deaths left marks on his landlord’s ceiling. He drank his coffee, checked the morning’s e-mails. One was from an academic friend in New York congratulating him on his appointment to Princeton University and discussing the article he had already published on Houellebecq. Another was from the eager Twelfth Night director with the promised copy of the script. He clicked some more and bought an online airline ticket to travel to New York the following week, where he planned to meet up with his girlfriend Gabriela.

Soon he would compulsively go over and over these small details of what he had done the night before and this morning, and he would read and reread Twelfth Night, as if hidden somewhere there was a hint or revelation concerning what was about to happen.

He turned on his radio and listened as he did his daily exercises on the old and now ragged carpet he had brought back from Baghdad just before the bombs fell in 1991. Leaving with his carpet, he had perhaps missed that very big war story, and perhaps in this extraordinary book he again misses The Big Story—the one about Islamic superiority fantasies, bigotry, intolerance and a declaration of civil war. Perhaps there will be a sequel.

He couldn’t escape Houellebecq, who was now being interviewed on the radio. Back to the computer to tell Gabriela that he had bought his air ticket, then a message to a publisher telling her he would like to meet novelist Akhil Sharma in New York. Her reply with contact details for Sharma arrived forty-five minutes after the attack. More typing and several disagreeable e-mails to colleagues about an interview he was due to do with Houellebecq at the end of the week. As he was about to turn off, a single-word reply arrived from Gabriela: “Yahoo!”

He was preoccupied. He wondered whether to write on Twelfth Night, and he wondered where to go first, to Libération or to Charlie Hebdo. The newspaper was closer but it was Charlie’s first editorial meeting for the new year. He was still undecided when he set off on his bicycle and only when he stopped at a boulevard Monoprix to buy a yoghurt drink did he make his decision.

This earnest man in beanie and pea-jacket with a shoulder bag, straddling a heavy elderly bicycle, seems to be the caricature of a Paris intellectual you would find squashed between the pages of French magazines in the 1970s, or now. At fifty-one he had been a bobo before the word was invented.

After their previous super-secret-office had been burnt out Charlie had moved to a comfortably central and even more secret location at 10 rue Nicolas-Appert. One end of the narrow street leads towards boulevard Richard-Lenoir, where a Muslim policeman would be executed that morning, and the location Simenon chose to house Inspector and Madame Maigret.

Lançon chained his heavy old bicycle—it would be there untouched months later until it finally disappeared—and made his way to the office. There was a door code to be used to gain entry to the building. On arriving he took his place amid the usual noisy laughter and arguments at the long editorial table—the victims were set up like targets in a fairground shooting gallery. When the Kouachi brothers began firing they were playing a real-life beginners-level computer game.

There was a discussion of Soumission. Those who had read it, Lançon and a colleague, were for, those who had not read it and disliked its author, were against. After a time he prepared to leave and delayed his exit to show a book illustration to the cartoonist Cabu. Much later the jazz book was returned to him, with flecks of red on the cover. The pages the two men had looked at were stuck together with blood.

There were offstage noises. The killing and wounding were starting. It all happened so quickly. Lançon, not yet in pain, was on the floor looking at the spilt brains of his neighbour Bernard Maris. All he saw, or remembers, of the killers were the black-covered legs of one of them. He heard “Allah Akbar” and the sound of the shots. The monstrous wound to his face was reflected back in the screen of his mobile phone. A colleague called his mother and told her that he was alive and disfigured.

The French political and social movement which started life throwing paving stones at the police in May 1968 was killed by Islamist bullets in January 2015. At the start of 2015 Charlie Hebdo was, and still is, a foundering Left magazine for a Left audience that had moved out and moved in with the noisy new neighbours—in French the opportunistic ménage of Left and Islamists is known as islamo-gauchiste. The magazine’s finances were poor, its readership minimal. The old-fashioned crudeness and offensiveness which defines it is unacceptable to the keyboard and car-burning street mobs of social justice warriors, multiculturalists, gender zealots and even thuggish anti-fascists who, if these words had meaning, would be anti-themselves. Had the pension-age magazine cartoonists not been attacked that day and if they had continued peacefully on into the future they would probably have found themselves targeted by the #MeToo movement, #BalanceTonPorc in France. A shooting anniversary edition of the magazine, published pre-Weinstein, recalled how the staffers had greeted each other that day, with one well-known cartoonist, killed in the massacre, taking advantage of the moment to handle one of the women’s breasts.

After the shooting Lançon woke in his own bed. He had slept well, and breathed in the smell of the fresh morning coffee which he anticipated drinking, then doing his usual exercises, showering and perfuming himself, reading and taking notes before again heading off to Charlie then Libération, where he would finally write something on Twelfth Night.

Outside, he again cycled to the Monoprix and again bought a vanilla yoghurt; the flavour delighted him. The usual clochards were scattered about the pavement. Phrases for his Shakespeare article filled his brain. He carefully disposed of the empty drink container in a rubbish bin. His thoughts wandered. He would be in America next week. He remembered the vision of Gabriela on his screen. Suddenly, unwelcome memories of dark legs framed his thoughts. A troubling detail disturbed him. He hadn’t made his coffee, he didn’t have an automatic machine, so how could he have smelt it?

Now he really opened his eyes. He saw his brother. It was no longer a dream. At about midnight he woke in the intensive care ward at the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital after hours of emergency surgery. In the months to come he would suffer and benefit from surgical advances developed from the First World War and modern Middle East nightmares.

When he was being taken to the hospital, and the bodies were being counted, his surgeon Chloe was having lunch with a friend, who had just given her a copy of Soumission. She received an emergency call to return to the hospital. The relationship between them as operation followed operation was close, and distant. Part friend, she was an accomplished technician and a dreamer about her art. 

Le Lambeau is an elegant and refined response to bloodshed, butchery and barbarism. It’s very un-Charlie. The dead cartoonists, with wit, anger and invigorating crudeness, would have reduced their killers to road kill.

Theatre critic Lançon sees his world as a theatre and the scene changes that take place occur as he changes hospital rooms. He consciously develops this theatrical metaphor. The players are noticed as they come into his room, and disappear from his thoughts when they exit. This may work in the theatre, but deprives a memoir like this of other voices, other opinions from outside the soundproofed Parisian bell jar.

Actors with only minor walk-on parts, like his police guard, may have been far more interesting on the current tragedy of multi-culti France but their role is simply that of voices-off heard talking outside his room as their radios chatter day and night or when he is moved about. Admittedly he does draw attention to a young policewoman, who dreams of publishing a lesbian love story. Several times Lançon tells the reader that, in his life before his brutal meeting with the brothers K (his term), he talks too much and writes too much. If he had written a 200-page book it would have been a masterpiece, but at just over 500 pages I felt for Gabriela when, about page 368, they argue and she calls him narcissistic. Poor woman, she made the mistake of arguing with a man who is picky about his bed sheets and gets his side of arguments published between book covers. Later they will be reconciled.

After the attack Lançon did not watch television or bother with newspapers or internet accounts. The tracking and killing of the Charlie killers happens far off stage. The hostage taking and killings in a kosher supermarket are but briefly noted. I remember, as he doesn’t, the name of Yoav Hattab, the twenty-one-year-old Tunisian who tried to fight back and was murdered.

Also outside his view was the huge Je suis Charlie demonstration held on the Sunday after the attack. It was one of the great public days in French history, worthy of comparison with other proud days. In 1791 there was a huge funeral held for Mirabeau when all Paris assembled to show their respect to an honoured leader of the Revolution and to see his body laid to rest for eternity in the Panthéon. Who cares that several years later it was pitched out, thrust into a pauper’s grave, and lost forever. Or that other great day in April 1944 when, with the bells of Notre Dame pealing, huge crowds welcomed Maréchal Pétain to Paris to mourn French civilians killed in Allied bombardments. Several months later the same crowds, the same fervour, the same ringing bells, welcomed General de Gaulle to his capital. The Maréchal died in prison. Those who recall the Whitlam funeral know that hypocrisy loves a good show.

Lançon awoke from an operation. Two nurses were at the end of his stretcher, puzzling over a crossword clue, “Madame Bovary in four letters.” He moved, they noticed he was awake and guessed from his actions that he wanted to help them. They passed him his whiteboard and on it he wrote “Emma”.

In one of the few mentions he makes of his wounded colleagues, Lançon says that he has heard that when Simon, the young webmaster wounded in the attack, awoke from a coma he had tapped out, as well as he could, “I was too lazy to die.”

Carefully arranged on Lançon’s bedside table were books, Kafka’s letters to Milena, who died in Ravensbrück concentration camp, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and the old three-volume Pléiade edition of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. It seems the collection of an over-thoughtful theatrical set dresser. Lançon writes of these works with knowledge and ease and the delightful superiority that make French Left cultural commentators so marvellously easy to ignore. Along with Houellebecq’s study of J.K. Huysmans in Soumission, his literary reflections could be exhumed as opening essays for a new field of academic endeavour—French Literary Studies Under the Occupation.

He filled his room with music—much Bach and South American. A violinist friend came and played Bach’s Chaconne for him. Reader, do as I did. Put down this text now and listen to the music—easily found on the net. Lançon, with absolute justice, describes the music as “resonating almost savagely in the silence of his room”. Yet outside the room, outside the stage he occupies, the world is not quiet. Plainly to be heard are loud clear voices of savagery, and they are speaking to us: “We have prepared for you what never crossed your mind, for our goal is to horrify you and terrorise you and harm you.”

After intensive care he was transferred to the safety of the military hospital housed within Les Invalides. His small room had a window looking out on treetops and the golden dome that stands above Napoleon’s tomb. Morning and evening rabbits play on the grass when the gates of the national monument are shut and the tourists are locked out. Once he was asked to film a wounded soldier walking among the trees exercising his new artificial leg. The images were for his family in Algeria. Here he also found Simon and the young woman looking after him, and other recuperating survivors. He seemed to take little interest in their fates even as he did, he says, get closer to Simon.

He was granted special permission to make an out-of-hours visit to a Velázquez exhibition at the Grand Palais. Lançon, a surgical mask on his face, and surgeon Chloe followed by his police protection, walked from Les Invalides across the Alexander III Bridge then on to the Grand Palais. This is a marvellous cinematic image, familiar to any tourist. The walk itself is a history of France. A hovering then swooping drone would have captured magnificent images. Imagine this scene, cue some lush scene-setting typically French music—perhaps accordions. Then slice away that dated phoniness from the soundtrack and replace it with real throbbing modern Paris music—Arabic, loud and threatening. Perhaps the same invasion music I heard playing outside Selfridge’s in London early one autumn evening this year.

Inside the gallery Lançon, a cultural journalist who can’t help himself, analysed the paintings. After the haunting exterior shots, far more interesting are the possibilities for more carefully framed cinema action as the wounded man and his surgeon, followed by photo-taking policemen, wander through this glorious tourist-free gallery. If Lançon had made a similar promenade just miles north of the Grand Palais he and his escort would have been lynched if his identity was known. This is France. For many in this colonised country Lançon is not a hero of the Charlie incident; they give that honour to his attackers—and it is not only the Islamic colons who hold this view.

In all his words Lançon does not wonder about the identity of the informer who allowed the banlieue thugs to locate the Charlie office. Their actions would also suggest they knew the police van of armed officers which had been parked in the street outside to protect the office had been removed four weeks before. They also knew that the editorial meeting, the first for the year, was taking place on this particular day. Even as I am writing there is news that a Muslim policeman responsible for the security of the present editor of the magazine is under investigation for possible contacts with Islamic extremists. 

Le Lambeau ends, before an epilogue, with a meeting of Lançon and Houellebecq when the latter very seriously quotes some words from Matthew 11:12: “and the violent take it by force”. This was the first time the two had met and the occasion seems tragic, meaningless, comic and futile. I would have preferred to cite Solzhenitsyn:

During my time in the camps I had got to know the enemies of the human race quite well: they respect the big fist and nothing else; the harder you slug them, the safer you will be. People in the West simply will not understand this, and are forever hoping to mollify them with concessions.

Editor Charb, eagerly sought out by the killers on January 7, wanted to have a gun for his protection. The policeman protecting him was killed and when a Kalashnikov was fired into his face he was defenceless. Around him the magazine’s cartoonists literally died with pens in their hands. Lançon recalls that in the post-massacre debris there was a knife. It was to have been used to cut a birthday cake.

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