Danse macabre

The deadliest attacks on French soil since the Second World War took place on the night of Friday, November 13, 2015. Nine attackers wearing suicide bombs, some carrying guns, killed 131 people and left hundreds wounded at sites in and around Paris. Their targets included the Stade de France, where the French football team was playing Germany, and a restaurant and café terraces, including those of the Belle Équipe, the Petit Cambodge and the Carillon. Most devastatingly, the attackers stormed the Bataclan concert hall, where ninety people were massacred.

The trial of those responsible for planning, facilitating and committing the attacks opened on September 8, 2021, in a specially constructed courtroom at the Palais de Justice in central Paris. It was the largest of its kind in modern French history, with over 2,400 plaintiffs. Those in the dock included Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the cell who traveled from Brussels intent on carnage. Six others were tried in absence, already in prison, or presumed dead.

The spectacle – both the trial and the distinctive space, lined with light pine and built to securely accommodate the swathes of media, public and survivors – became known as V13 (vendredi 13) by those diligently following it. One of these was Emmanuel Carrere, whose weekly columns for the magazine L’Obs are compiled in this book. In recent years Carrère has become known in France and the English-speaking world as a highly readable and provocative memoirist. His books, such as L’Adversaire (2000), Limonov (2011) and Le Royaume (2014), might ostensibly be about a murderer, a dissident Russian writer and the origins of Christianity, respectively, but his most consistent and sustained subject is Emmanuel Carrère himself. His previous, and perhaps most accomplished, book since L’Adversaire, Yoga (2020), is an unflinchingly intimate self-examination of a period of recent mental illness.

Given his penchant for interiority, Carrère might seem a strange choice for a court reporter, particularly for a case comprising lengthy, detailed and harrowing tests from hundreds of victims. But the author has written grippingly before about the French judicial system: a selection of the essays in his collection It is useful to do everything (2016) are court reports, focusing particularly on unsettling crimes (including an infanticide and an attempted matricide). And while he can be accused of literary narcissism, a deep strand of empathy runs through his writing. His nonfiction book D’autres see que la mienne (2009) is a moving exploration of people who have lived through trauma (especially the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, to which he was a witness) and serious illness. One of its most memorable protagonists is Etienne, a judge at a provincial civil court.

Carrère’s sensitivity and eye for telling, pathetic detail are on display throughout this collection. His role at the trial is to capture not the intricacies of French jurisprudence, but the mood and gestures of the occasion. The lengthy case played an important role for the bereaved or those suffering directly from the attacks. It provided a space for survivors to speak, reflect and have their trauma validated by the French legal system. Carrère reports the witness statements of those whose lives were changed for ever, testimonies of families whose loved ones never returned from a Friday night out. He is interested, too, not only in the perpetrators, such as Abdelhamid Abaaoud (who was killed by police in the days following the attack) or Abdeslam (who for reasons still unknown opted to discard his suicide belt), but in minor figures such as Ali Oulkadi – apparently ignorant of his friend’s role in the attacks, but convicted for driving Abdeslam to a hiding place on his return to Brussels – whose life has been torn apart by his association with the attackers.

Unlike in many of his other books, Carrere does not blur the boundaries of fact and fiction. But he does bring a novelistic technique to bear on his reporting. At such moments the famous writer gracefully absents himself, letting the survivors speak. One chapter recounts the tragic siege at the Bataclan as a vital collage of snippets of memories, which replay the surprise, confusion and horror as the shooting begins. Another is given over entirely to the words of Maria, a survivor of the attack on the Carillon bar, as she devastatingly recalls the night, the loss of her husband and her subsequent efforts to rebuild her life.

It is an achievement that the most memorable person in a book by Emmanuel Carrere is not Emmanuel Carrere. Instead we meet Nadia Mondeguer. Nadia lost her daughter Lamia at the Belle Équipe and speaks movingly about the evening of November 13. Carrère strikes up a friendship with Nadia and becomes a visitor to the family home, the writer inevitably emerging into the story as the pair spend hours discussing the case .

Nadia and Carrère, together with another survivor, even spend a day away from court visiting the bizarrely named “buisson conspiratif(“conspiratorial bush”) on the outskirts of Saint-Denis, where Abaaoud is said to have slept rough during the days immediately following the attacks. But Carrère’s appearance never feels gratuitous or cynical. The writer, for whom Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a touchstone, is well aware of the ethical risks of getting too involved.

The attackers were terrorists who pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State, and Carrère claims that one of his interests in the case is the role played by religion. For the most part, though, this book does not get to grips with the religious dimension of the trial. (Readers interested in that aspect will be better served by Marc Weitzmann’s Un temps for hair, 2018.) This was a resoundingly secular procedure, focusing on the facts of the case rather than the motivation. When Abdeslam announced his profession at the trial as “Combatant de l’État islamique” (“soldier of the Islamic state”), he was given short shrift by the judge, who drily gestured to his paperwork: “Moi, je vois: interimaire(“Well, it says here: ‘temporary worker’”).

Carrère does find one religious angle, which places v13 at the heart of his oeuvre: he is fascinated by the Islamic notion of taqiya, the practice of hiding or denying one’s religion when under threat. An individual’s ability to create and inhabit what amounts to a parallel reality has long fascinated Carrère. Thirty years ago he published a biography of Philip K. Dick (Je suis vivant et vous êtes morts, 1993), a man preoccupied by a paranoid conviction that his reality was different from everyone else’s. Carrère has been interested, too, in the hermetic realities of the Soviet Union and early Christianity, while his book on Jean-Claude Romand (L’Adversaire) delves into the murderer’s complex double life. In v13 he speculates about the extent to which taqiya plays a role in the self-presentation of the accused: to what extent are those protesting their innocence hiding their extremist convictions?

Even though v13 started life as a collection of weekly columns, its unfolding is as compelling and affecting as Emmanuel Carrère’s other, more structured work. It joins a notable subgenre of French post-terror attack writing that includes Notre Solitude (2020) by the novelist Yannick Haenel – a document of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting trial – and Le Lambeau (2018), a memoir by the critic Philippe Lançon, who was shot in the same attack. Like those books v13 is ultimately concerned with the boundaries between private experience and public understanding during a period of intense grief and mourning – a ritual now being played out once again at the Palais de Justice in the form of the trial of eight suspects of the terror attack in Nice on July 14, 2016.

Russell Williams is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the American University of Paris, and consultant French Editor of the TLS

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