Throughout nine months and some 17 operations in the surgical department of the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital, journalist Philippe Lançon did not think once about the Kouachi brothers, the terrorists who attacked the offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, where he was a columnist. In the January 7, 2015 attack, in which 12 people were killed, including eight of Lançon’s colleagues, he was critically wounded after bullets riddled his right arm and shattered his jaw.
While in the hospital, in Paris’ 13th arrondissement, Lançon learned about new techniques involving the implanting of soft tissues, including blood vessels and nerves, from his “good angel” – Chloé, who performed most of his surgery. She also spent hours explaining things, encouraging Lançon while setting limits to his demands and to the dependence he was developing on her.
To replace Lançon’s splintered lower jawbone, part of the fibula bone was taken from his leg. A pouch of soft tissue, removed from his back, was sutured to the bone and implanted in his face. A long process then began, including rejection of the transplant, repeated surgery, a gradual stretching of part of his (hairy) chest skin over the area of the jaw, a restructuring of internal tissues and gums, and eventually implantation of teeth.
The journey into the journalist’s body and soul – a painful, frustrating and despairing process – but also into how he rebuilt and returned to life, is described in Lançon’s recently published book, “Le Lambeau” (lit., “the shred”; published by Gallimard). The 500-page book, released in April, has just won the prestigious French Prix Femina literary award. To date it has sold about 250,000 copies in France and it is being translated into seven languages.
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It’s a wonderful book – a thriller, an epos of death and resurrection, of pain, mercy and love of all kinds. It is also – a rare occurrence – a paean to medical professionals of all echelons at the two institutions in which Lançon was hospitalized (the second being the Hotel des Invalides military hospital).
“Le Lambeau” is written with candor and acuity, and is almost unbearable to read. The author presents hell incarnate: the attack, which lasted only three-and-a-half minutes; his friends lying around him, touching each other as if in a danse macabre; the brains of his close friend Bernard Marie, spilling out over Lançon’s lap after he’d just finished a conversation with him; the fact that his questions to the emergency responders who rescued him went unanswered – he didn’t realize that couldn’t be understood since his lower jaw had been destroyed. All this is like a punch to our gut.
Writes Lançon: “At that moment I wondered: Was I going to survive? Return from the dead? Where was life, where was death? What was left of me? I didn’t think about these things from the outside, as if they were a subject of discussion: I lived them. They were around me, on the floor and inside me, real like a piece of wood or a hole in the floor, waves of unidentified pain washed over me and I didn’t know what to do with them. I still don’t know...”
‘A dense fog’
Today Lançon is a journalist and literary critic at the daily Libération, and gives few interviews. He made his first public appearance after the attack only after receiving the award earlier this month. Our interview took place via email.
In one interview you said that right after the attack, you were in somewhat of a dense fog, which you wanted to dissipate and probe by means of the act of writing. At which point in your recovery did you start writing “Le Lambeau”?
“I wrote a few segments in New York, in February 2016, a year after the attack. I stopped right away since I felt it was still too raw. I started writing again in the summer of 2016, while staying with friends in Provence, and stopped again, feeling it was still too early. And yet, at the same time I wrote the first version of my portrayal of my surgeon, Chloé. But I still hadn’t found the right tone.”
“By ‘too early’ I mean I wasn’t yet ready to delve into the events I’d experienced, using my memories. I wrote the book between June 2017 and January 2018, first in England and later in Rome, at the Villa Medici [a branch of the French Academy in Rome, that offers annual stipends to French artists]. Actually, at that location, thanks to its tranquil atmosphere, I wrote most of the book. Apparently I needed to be far away from the city and hospitals where everything had taken place.”
Do the scenes, noises and smells of that day in January 2015 come back to you frequently?
“That has stopped over the last year. I have complicated dreams, which could be interpreted as relating to the attack, but no dream directly reconstructs it or parts of it. The emotions associated with the attack completely disappeared when I started actually writing the book, and I wrote about them as they came up. Writing was like extinguishing, one by one, the black candles I had lit.”
In his book, Lançon describes how he cut himself off from current events, from TV, radio and newspapers, during his lengthy recovery. He didn’t want to hear anything about the fate of the terrorists, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, or about Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four Jews during an attack at Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris, the day after the killings at Charlie Hebdo.
Almost four years have passed since the attack and you still avoid exposure to current events. Are you not interested in what’s happening around you?
“It’s hard for me to take interest in current events, it upsets me, it concerns me. The truth is that it’s increasingly terrible – it doesn’t add anything for me. These are events that don’t teach me anything, as far as I can tell.”
Why did you choose – particularly before going into surgery – the heartbreaking chapter in which Proust describes the death of his grandmother in the first volume of “Remembrance of Things Past,” Kafka’s “Letters to Milena,” and “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann as your reading material?
“I don’t really know. Two of the books were chosen instinctively, by a man hovering between two worlds, without the ability to talk, covered in tubes, in a small hospital room: These were Proust and Thomas Mann. The first, since I was always reading it, the second because I wanted to read it. I read about the grandmother’s death before going into my third or fourth operation, I can’t remember when. ... The text was so powerful that it didn’t leave me. With regard to ‘The Magic Mountain,’ I kept reading the first pages where [the protagonist] Hans Castorp arrives at the sanatorium in Davos and settles in, perhaps because I too was now settling in for a long time in a world that was different than the world of the healthy, in the world of the unwell. In contrast, Kafka was there by chance. A friend brought me ‘Milena.’”
“This friend knows me well, she’s my boss in the literary section at Libération. You should ask her why she chose that book, but she was right. I was never without the book after that; it was the only book that was with me in the operating room, under the sheets, like samizdat underground literature. Kafka leaves no hope but he presents the wisdom of despair and the infinite spaces of regret. His genius is filled with irony and modesty.”
What’s changed for you in the four years that have passed since the shooting? Have you been able to understand this act of pure cruelty?
“My face has changed. My daily routine has changed, as has my professional standing. My social life has changed, my diet has changed a little. My attitude to everyday life, to my friends and colleagues, even to my memories, has changed. My personality hasn’t changed, either for better or for worse. Some habits haven’t changed, such as running regularly or walking frequently, especially since that helps my rehabilitation.”
“I understand the motives of the Kouachi brothers and other terrorists – we’ve been showered with explanations – but they seem so foolish that I find no interest in them. Stupidity plays a major role in the use of violence and I think that isn’t talked about much, maybe because there’s nothing to say about it. Maybe by talking about the stupidity of others you run the risk of appearing arrogant. This is a risk that few people in the media are willing to take, in a world in which one should show more modesty.”
Do you harbor any hatred?
“Not at all.”
Do you feel you’ve managed [in your book] to let people who didn’t experience it understand the horror?
“I don’t know if I did, but in the chapter devoted to the shooting and in the one devoted to the sea anemone [where he recalls his friend’s brain spilling out], I tried to give the reader a feeling and an understanding of the horror I felt in a very intimate way. I want these moments to be understood as I lived them, as a terrible and fantastical journey.”
“Le Lambeau” is a wonderful book, which carries some hope with it. Did you know this while you were writing it?
“No. I didn’t want to convey any message or good news. I wanted to tell the story in the most accurate way possible, the story of a person who was the victim of a terror attack, this particular one. I wanted it to be read as an internal journey and as an adventure at the same time. At each stage of the work I asked myself the same question: Is this exactly what happened to you? Is this what you lived through, what you felt, what you remember? Did I go deep enough? Is that the way this should be written? When I had doubts regarding events, scenes or the writing itself, I addressed the question to the reader, which raised another question: Is this how one should express doubt? Should it be included in the story? Is it too much?”
“Now I see in the many letters I receive – mainly from sick, hospitalized people, older people who are suffering, but also from others – that the book offers some hope. Obviously, this gladdens me. How can I define this hope? In my opinion, life is stronger than those who try to destroy it, and it unites us. One must find hope within oneself even when we’re at rock bottom, because it’s always there. I agree this isn’t high-end philosophy but I’m not a philosopher. I’m a journalist and author, two situations that aren’t contradictory, but feed on each other.”
The book ends in New York, on Friday, November 13, 2015, when, while sitting at a café in Manhattan, Lançon hears about the shooting at the Bataclan club and surrounding cafes near Place Republique in Paris. Hope dies last.