Erwan Larher channels Bataclan terror into literature
It was a Friday night like any other, or at least it started out that way. For lifelong rock ’n’ roll devotee Erwan Larher, it offered the chance to be a part of what promised to be a sweaty night of loud music by a cool touring band.
“Tonight at the Bataclan,” the French novelist wrote in a Facebook post earlier that day, “we are going to drink bad beer and jump up and down while howling ‘I really wanna be in LA.’ All hail bad taste and good rock. I’ll be wearing my cowboy boots.”
Larher couldn’t convince any of his friends to come to the Bataclan with him, so he headed to the legendary Paris theatre on his own. What happened on that night—November 13, 2015—was a shared experience that would forever entwine Larher’s story with all the strangers in attendance. While the headlining band, Eagles of Death Metal, performed on-stage, three gunmen—French nationals working for ISIL—entered the venue and opened fire on the crowd, killing 90 and injuring many others.
Larher was among the wounded, a bullet having passed through his body. While his body and mind recovered, he was certain of one thing: there was no way in hell he was going to write about it.
“It didn’t go through my mind, in fact, to write about it, because I’m a novelist—I invent stories, I create characters, I write fictions usually—and what happened in Bataclan was part of my private life,” he says when the Straight reaches him by phone in Ottawa, where he’s on a promotional tour. “So, I was writing another novel, but after talking with friends and thinking, it appeared to me that it was not only a personal tragedy but a national tragedy, and maybe a worldwide tragedy. So, the novelist woke up—because as a novelist I try to question the world we live in and what we make of it, and the human beings agitating in this world, and what do we do to change it or not change it, and why and how?”
Those questions formed the basis of the aptly titled The Book I Didn’t Want to Write, which describes Larher’s personal Bataclan horror in grippingly intimate detail, but also imagines the events of that November night from the terrorists’ perspectives. (Larher pointedly refrains from using their real names, instead dubbing them with monikers that refer to various demons from Islamic tradition.)
“It’s a huge question, how three French people—because they are not coming from another planet, they were just French; they could have been my neighbours or my colleagues at work—decide to commit suicide, killing 90 people,” Larher says. “That’s a huge question; I think that questions a lot of values, a lot of things about the way we live together. So that’s how it began, when I made the switch between a personal drama and the collective drama.”
Larher admits that writing the book was a struggle at first. Paradoxically, even though it was about something that he had lived through, he didn’t want it to be about him, per se. Then he hit upon a solution.
“I wrote the whole book in the first person first, and I was embarrassed with that,” he notes. “I was not feeling at ease. I was not comfortable. I started to write the book in April, and I said to myself, ‘If nothing satisfying is written by the end of August, you stop the project, you do something else.’ By the end of August, beginning of September, I had decided to just rewrite the whole book second-person. And then it worked better. I was feeling at ease with the whole text and the whole story, like if I was becoming really a fiction character, you know? And the second person helped me also grab the reader, like you could have been lying on this floor bleeding, you could have handled the gun and shot.”
In retrospect, Larher feels that he needed to write the book, even though he truly hadn’t wanted to do it at all. It’s not a shot-by-shot account of a terrorist attack—if that’s what you’re after, try Wikipedia—but what the author describes as a work of literature.
“I tried to have a different voice, a literary voice,” Larher says. “We had journalistic voices, political voices—we had a lot of speeches. And literature hadn’t taken the subject, so I tried to do it. I felt it was my duty, in a way.”