It isn’t an exaggeration to talk of France “before Charlie” and “after Charlie”. The country has been under a state of emergency since the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, although we’ve largely learned not to see the armed soldiers patrolling the pavement outside schools and synagogues, and the airport-style security to get inside the Louvre and the Pompidou centre seems to have had little affect on visitor numbers. (Even if a few American tourists – including Trump’s friend ‘Jim’ – may have decided to postpone their visit. I, for one, do not miss Jim.)
In her memoir, Darling, I’m going to Charlie, translated by H. J. Stone, Maryse Wolinski interleaves memories of her long and happy marriage to the cartoonist Georges Wolinski with a detailed account of the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdoin which he was killed, and its aftermath. Its pages are soaked in tears, and they are saturated in anger too, a bitter critique of the failure of the state to protect her husband and a call to arms to the world to act against Islamist fundamentalism.
‘Darling, I’m going to Charlie.’ These were the last words that Georges said to Maryse, his wife of 47 years, just hours before the attack. Everyone who was in Paris that day remembers the drip-drip of time as we sat, welded to the radio or television or Twitter or whatever our news source of choice was, horror gradually dawning as we realised what was happening – the act of terror that we had been primed to expect for months or even years. Depending on your political viewpoint you started off either in denial, or already assuming the very worst. It didn’t take long for amateur footage shot from the next-door building’s roof to appear on Twitter, the masked men in black shouting “Allahu Akbar” as they fled down a tiny Bastille side street. Those who had assumed the worst were right.
Maryse was one of the last to hear. She was stuck in a meeting that morning, and had turned off her phone. When she turned it on again there were dozens of messages and missed calls. She grabbed a taxi and rushed to the Charlie offices, to which she was barred entry by the police cordon. Later she spoke to the witnesses as they described what they had seen, Nathalie and Thomas and Julien from the theatre next door who saw the Kouachi brothers arrive, and who were the first outsiders to realise what was happening. Coco, the cartoonist who had let the gunmen into the magazine’s offices, a Kalashnikov shoved into her neck as she punched in the code, terrified for her life as her daughter waited for her to pick her up at nursery.
Maryse seethes with fury at the government for having failed to protect her husband and his colleagues (there is little mention of the policeman, policewoman and the Jewish shoppers and the maintenance man who were also killed that terrible week). She details a litany of failures, including the inexplicable downscaling of the security detail for Charb, the magazine’s editor, and the casual cruelty of the way she and other relatives were told of their loved one’s deaths by police officers clearly lacking any training in disaster management.
And she gives us some sweet details of their marriage, including the Post-its covering an entire wall in their apartment that “tell our whole story…. They speak of his love, his tenderness, his joy… his sadness.” But here the narrative is curiously flat, which somehow leaches any real emotion from the text; it is like an illustration of the maxim that a writer should show, not tell. We are told again and again how much in love Georges and Maryse were, how he worshipped her, how she was his “blonde little girl”. (It’s not clear if the depth of their love makes his death more tragic, though I suspect that something of that is intended.) The reader feels a little harangued rather than moved at the description of Maryse and Georges’s love.
Charlie Hebdo and its very French brand of unrepentant impertinence and provocation has been the subject of furious debate over the last two years. Where once its cartoonists lampooned the pope and the Catholic Church, now, still in the name of freedom of expression and secularism, its target was the prophet Mohammed and his followers. Maryse quotes Georges, who acknowledged that, “we are reckless imbeciles who have taken a pointless risk. We think we are invulnerable. For dozens of years, we have been provoking, and one day that provocation will turn against us.” The attack on Charlie, and the four million strong marches that took place all over the country on the following Sunday, exposed a fault line that has split French society in two. Maryse wonders who marched that day: “‘There couldn’t have been a lot of Muslims,’ a close friend told me. ‘In any case, I didn’t see anyone from North Africa, Muslim or not.’” While the official line insisted that the march was a defence of “tolerance and freedom”, the historian Emmanuel Todd called the marches a manifestation of “Zombie Catholicism”, a totalitarian elite culture with its head in the sand.
This brief little book is a cry of pain, of wrenching loss, not only for her beloved husband, but for what she calls those “glorious years”, where the atmosphere at Charlie was “fraternal, jovial”, before the “war of ignorance against culture, against the freedom so cherished by Georges, against obscurantism.” Maryse’s love is not for Charlie. It is for Georges and for a more innocent France, a more innocent world.
Bookwitty, March 21st, 2017