Antoine Leiris’ life can be said to have changed twice during that fateful week in November. Three days after the horrific events, he posted a letter to the attackers on Facebook, which went viral all over the world, becoming, for many, a response indissociable from the events. The words, he says, came out almost of their own volition, “imposing their rhythm […] one after another or all at the same time” — he could not fight them off. The book followed closely and in the same therapeutic manner. In a sense Leiris did what he could to cope, and that involved writing down his personal version of the night that took his wife, and the few days that followed; he didn’t have much of a choice: “I sit at my computer to disgorge all these words that live inside my head. […] I type them on my keyboard to quieten them, so they will stop fighting and let me sleep.”
The result is, not unexpectedly, both raw and intimate. This is an account of loss unique for its lack of critical distance, so to speak, and as such makes a remarkable insight into grief itself. It offers an undimmed look at the actual processes of death, as they affect a close one and everybody else around him. Particularly melancholic are what he calls the “bureaucratic irritations that pollute grief,” and include everything from the psychological support staff, whose mechanical compassion rings hollow, to his visit to the mortuary:
“Inside the building, the tiles look old and shabby. So do the employees’ faces. It’s cold. Since arriving, I have been asked a dozen times if I would like to sit down; each time, I refuse, out of fear I won’t be able to get up again. I wait, standing up.
Protocols. Paperwork. Families come and go. About fifteen enter before us. All re-emerge in pieces.”
Leiris is not alone, either, and the presence of his 17-month-old son Melvil throughout the memoir provides with its most touching moments. A heartbreaking scene has him reduce his father to tears while taking a bath, without much knowing why (Leiris had attempted to cut the boy’s nails, something his mother used to do, and is horrified at the slightest possibility of hurting him). Another showcases the futile goodwill of other parents — “the brigade of mothers” — from Melvil’s nursery, who organized themselves to ensure he had a soup to take home every day. The boy never ate any: he couldn’t stand the taste. These little glimpses give the narrative its poignancy, and allow it to rise above the cold drone of depression.
Yet the fact that it was written so close to tragedy, despite providing the book with its strengths, also endows it with one unfortunate weakness — the same found in Leiris’ original Facebook post. If there is one thing that musician Nick Cave’s most recent album Skeleton Tree — likewise written with tragedy close by: the man’s son died while he was working on it — demonstrated is that trauma is an immense weight. It affects creativity, and thought. Thus Leiris’ immediate response, presented at rare points throughout the memoir, and certainly valid for someone at the lowest depths of sorrow, does not really hold up to scrutiny.
“You will not have my hate. I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know. […] There are only two of us — my son and myself — but we are stronger than all the armies of the world.”
It is a message of defiant ignorance, another sighting of a long-standing liberal self-deception made endangered by recent events: the idea that one can impose his tolerance on those who do not accept it. It is courageous, yes, but only as a look away — an obstinate refusal to face the horror. An understandable reflex, given the trauma, but hardly worth a second thought. One ought to remember, especially in these times, that evil is not opposed by love, but by justice.
YOU WILL NOT HAVE MY HATE
by Antoine Leiris, trans. Sam Taylor
Harvill Secker (UK) | Penguin Press (US)
144pp. | £10 | $23