Lançon’s life had been flattened. To witness him try to put it back together is like watching a farmer picking up still-warm nails after both his house and barn have been burned to the ground.
He is, in this adroit translation from the French by Steven Rendall, a gentle humorist. His first thought, upon sensing that his teeth are marbles in his mouth, is to feel pity for his dentist. He consumes a dish he refers to as “the gazpacho of melancholy.” He repeatedly refers to one of his oozing wounds as “the cutlet.” One nurse is “as phlegmatic as a gnu.”
At the same time, he lives in a state of constant anxiety. He fears terrorists will return. He imagines them outside the hospital windows, or stalking its halls. He is guarded by policemen, who arrive in shifts, with Beretta rifles.
He is disgusted by Islamist fanatics. (“Who were these zombies? What zone were they returning from?”) He’s a liberal man who senses that the political left, as regards religious fundamentalists, has its head up its own hindquarters. He fears “total war” and “extinction,” not just of Western values but of civilization itself.
Lançon was cheered by the spontaneous free-speech rallies in the Paris streets after the shootings. Everyone looked good on Instagram holding a “Je Suis Charlie” placard. He also thought the rallies were a bit ironic. He points out, not without bitterness, that on the early morning of Jan. 7, “few people in France were prepared to say ‘I am Charlie.’”
The magazine had lost its media friends, and much of its importance, after it first printed cartoons of Muhammad in 2006. Lampooning Islam was widely conflated with racism. In what might be this memoir’s decisive paragraph, he writes, like a dentist scraping around a nerve:
“This was a crucial moment: Most newspapers, and even some famous for their graphics, distanced themselves from a satirical weekly that published these caricatures in the name of freedom of expression. Some of them did so out of a declared concern about good taste; others because speaking truth to Muslims might drive them to despair.”
He continues: “This lack of solidarity was not merely a professional and moral disgrace. By isolating and pointing the finger at Charlie, it helped make the latter the Islamists’ target.” This memoir is about the principles Lançon finds to be worth upholding and defending, even in the face of death.
“Disturbance” is an awfully anodyne title for a book like this one. He might have borrowed another from Doris Lessing: “Briefing for a Descent Into Hell.”