Lançon writes of his months in Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, his slow recovery, and his pain eased by morphine and Bach, offering an account interspersed with memories of his life, his childhood, his family, his first marriage, and his days reporting in Cuba and Africa and the Middle East, textured with references to the literature and music and culture that has shaped him—jazz and Baudelaire and Kafka. Through his flashbacks, he reclaims his life.
The book’s title can be literally translated as “tatters.” It’s a line from a play by Jean Racine, but it can also refer to a shred of flesh. Lançon introduces the concept at a moment when doctors decide to graft a piece of skin from his leg onto his face to help reconstruct it, one of no fewer than 17 surgeries he has undergone since the attack. He captures the morning of the attacks at Charlie Hebdo in excruciating, poetic detail from memory, and later from reading the police report, where he discovers, among other things, that one of his colleagues, a graphic artist, died with his pen still in his hand, “like a resident of Pompeii blocked in lava, before he even knew that the eruption had taken place.” He recalls the screams of his colleagues, shouts of Allahu akbar, the dry sound of bullets.
For much of his hospital stay, Lançon is unable to speak, and with three unbandaged fingers he communicates by writing on a slate. One day, the nurses attending to him are doing a crossword puzzle. “Madame Bovary in four letters” is one clue. They’re stumped. Lançon takes his slate and writes, simply, “Emma.” This is one of countless passages in the book that moved me: Here was someone in great pain, the target of an attack with geopolitical importance, trying to maintain his humanity through his intense personal culture. This is why Le Lambeau stands out amid all the other accounts of the attacks—for Lançon’s lovely prose and the subtleties of his mind.
At one point, Lançon starts to read the papers and comes upon references to the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo; he is struck by the sheer quantity of nonsense and “the capacity of the contemporary world to yammer on with explanations and commentary of absolutely no significance.” He refers to the attackers as “the Brothers K.,” as in the Dostoevsky novel. “The brouhaha around the Brothers K. was a Dostoevsky epidemic,” he writes. “Everyone imagined himself to be the epileptic novelist, everyone wanted to understand and reckon with the acts of the two men in custody.” There has been a lot of journalism, as well there should be. But Le Lambeau is literature, and as such it goes far deeper. It is not an overtly political book, but it is a beautiful and subtle defense of everything the terrorists attacked.
Reading Le Lambeau, I understood how the terrorist attacks had affected me. After the initial fear wore off, rather than making me want to leave—the perennial prerogative of the expat, the voluntary immigrant—they had in fact made me feel closer to France, more admiring of its culture, more sympathetic to its flaws and weaknesses. Above all, the attacks made me realize that I actually lived in Paris, that the flat gray November sky was my sky, too, and it would be wise to start to look around. When, in the aftermath of the attacks, signs cropped up across the city with the centuries-old Latin motto of Paris, Fluctuat nec mergitur (“She is tempest-tossed but does not sink”), it resonated. And still does.