Speaking Volumes: Afterwards

Antoine Leiris and Hélène Muyal-Leiris: their ‘once upon a time’ began one 21 June (he remembers the date), with music, at a concert.

“As always happens at the start of the great stories,” he writes, “I thought she wouldn’t want someone like me. I thought she was too beautiful, too Parisian, too sophisticated, too everything, for someone like me. I took her hand. We were swallowed up by the crowd and the noise. Until the last moment, I thought she would escape me. Then we kissed.”

They had a son, Melvil, a life in Paris; Hélène liked Louve perfume, dressing up, The Misfits, The Ramones, Led Zeppelin. On November 13, she went to the Bataclan to hear The Eagles of Death Metal at a concert. Antoine Leiris was reading, his son asleep, when the text messages started to come in:


He switches on the TV, the “box of horrors”, and the news on the ticker suddenly stops, telling him about the terrorist attack at the Bataclan. He calls his wife. Her phone rings out, goes to voicemail.
The day after Leiris goes to the mortuary, he’s on Facebook to talk to some of Hélène’s friends. He has been writing a letter through his grief and his numbness. He sees the Facebook prompt: What’s on your mind? “Copy, paste, post. My words no longer belong to me.” The letter is titled, You Will Not Have My Hate, and in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks, it goes viral around the world.

“On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hate,” Leiris wrote. “… You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.” His son is only 17 months old, he writes, but this little boy will defy the terrorists by growing up happy and free.

Leiris is a journalist, and he wrote You Will Not Have My Hate (Harvill Secker, 129 pages) in the months after his wife’s death perhaps as one way of making sense of life afterwards. In an interview to the Washington Post, he said that his first instinct was to hate the terrorists. But he had the habit of analysing his feelings, of asking himself, What do I think about this, rather than, What do I feel about this. He thought then, “Hatred would take all the space in my life, and I don’t know if I am strong enough to deal with that.”

After the Bataclan tragedy, friends and strangers rally around him. The mothers at the nursery where he takes his son bring gifts of food every day in Tupperware containers, “puree of broccoli, corn, potatoes, garlic, minced lamb”, carrot-pumpkin-green bean soup. Melvil’s reaction to home-made meals is another story, but Leiris understands that his son, deprived of his own mother’s love, “will be given tenderness by all these others, in little pots of puree”.
Life refuses to stop for him and his son. The meter reader comes and goes; he meets the friend who was with Hélène at the Bataclan and survived the attack, he learns how to clip his son’s nails without her help, feeling “the vertigo of solitude”. Leiris does not want to be a hero, but bravery and heroism are almost always forced on those who survive tragedy – life in the grip of a dictator’s whims, a tsunami that takes most of their family, terror attacks – especially if they write or speak about it afterwards, becoming a beacon for others.

When I reach the chapter “The Right To Doze”, I realise that I have, also, been treating Leiris as a talismanic figure, looking for the same answers and strength that his Facebook post gave strangers around the world. You worry for friends who were in Paris, and who lost their own loved ones to the November 15 attacks; also for friends who have been under similar threat elsewhere, from Ankara to Dhaka to New York.

“Watching from a distance, you always have the impression that the person who survives a disaster is a hero,” he writes. “I know I am not. I was struck by the hand of fate… It came to take Hélène, and it forced me to wake up without her.” He wants the right to be afraid, to lack courage, to make mistakes, to feel overwhelmed. The right not to stay strong, perhaps one of the heaviest crosses that survivors might be made to carry.

But Leiris also wants the right to be ordinary. He makes it seem inevitable, that he will bring up his son to be happy, to turn away from hate, but look around you. In a world where entire sections of the population embrace the politics of hate and anger, acquiring power through the careful nurturing of grudges and grievance, it is not an ordinary act to choose the path of radical love.

You Will Not Have My Hate is hard to read, because you are stepping into another person’s love story and tragedy. It is also one of the most powerful books I’ve read recently. If there is hope in these times, it lies in the choices people make after everything they loved has been shattered. It is not a small decision to turn away from violence, and walk, however falteringly, towards love, and the small, everyday gifts of life: a boy and his father, splashing in puddles, laughing.

(Published in the Business Standard, November 22, 2016)






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