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Terror in Europe

French Nobel Laureate: Paris Terrorists Were "Not Barbarians"

Novelist and Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio welcomed the resolve of millions of his fellow Frenchmen uniting against terrorism. But he's ready to ask the uncomfortable questions.

French writer Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio
French writer Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio
Nelson Fredy Padilla

BOGOTA — I had a hard time tracking down France's Jean-Marie Gustave le Clézio, winner of the 2008 Nobel literature prize. He really is a nomad. The writer travels to the most distant lands to disconnect from the bustle of the "civilized" world not unlike a character in his 1966 novel Le Déluge (The Flood).

Our meeting, when it finally did happen, was virtual. Before emerging from "hiding" to travel to Colombia as principal guest of the 2015 Hay Festival, Le Clézio spoke to me from a cybercafé. The first thing he did was warn me in his "street Spanish" that he was in a place "without connections."

"The questionnaire is too long," he said. "It would be better if we see each other in Colombia to try and answer some of these questions."

We spoke a bit about the festival here in Colombia, where Le Clézio has a growing number of readers. He also talked about the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, who would be joining him at the event. But what I most wanted to know was what Le Clézio thought about the Jan. 7 attack on Charlie Hebdo and the massive demonstrations that followed four days later.

"I think the subject deserves reflection," he said, meaning it's not something that can be hastily answered. But then he expounded a bit, "I agree with complete freedom of the press and regret the violence. But I deplore the way the incident is being exploited, and the concert of martial declarations."

"I'm not of the Charlie Hebdo generation," Le Clézio went on to say. "I lived in Panama when the journal began." He was referring to the four years he spent moving between Panama and Colombia and to the liberal 1960s, which led to the creation of irreverent journals like Hara-kiri and Hara-kiri Hebdo, published between 1969 and 1981. The name inspired the creation in 1992 of the leftist Charlie Hebdo, whose title slightly mocked the memory of Charles de Gaulle.

"I also regret that a text of scant value like Submission (the novel on Islamism written by another French writer, Michel Houellebecq) should be considered a manifesto of modern French literature," he said.

Le Clézio, the author of some 50 novels, tales and essays, didn't have time to elaborate but gave me a task. He said that to better understand his position I ought to put aside my questions and instead read Kenzaburo Oe, a Japense writer and 1994 Nobel laureate. The two spent time together at the prestigious Colegio de México. Among other things, Oe wrote Hiroshima Notebooks and Teach Us to Outgrow our Madness.

Le Clézio recommended a different book by Oe, one called Sibuntin (Seventeen). The book is about "a young man without values or education who becomes a killing machine under the influence of an extreme right-wing party ... Islamic radicalism can be considered an extreme right-wing party," he said.

Words for his daughter

Le Clézio shared more of his ideas in an essay called "Lettre à ma fille, au lendemain du 11 janvier 2015" (a letter to my daugther, the day after Jan. 11, 2015), which appeared in a recent Le Monde literary supplement. The writer's daughter took part in the mass march in Paris against the terrorist attacks. Le Clézio was delighted she was among the thousands denouncing the "blind violence of fanatics."

Le Clézio was born in Nice, but lives in a state of spiritual conflict with Europe. As a young boy he traveled to Africa to visit his father, a doctor. He later wrote about that experience in an essay called The African, set against a backdrop of war. Interestingly, the image that best summed up the Paris protest for Le Clézio was of a little boy of African descent watching everything while trying to lean over a balcony.

The march was a "miraculous moment" of unity among French people of all backgrounds and challenged the beliefs of "certain disillusioned intellectuals," he wrote. Le Clézio was moved by the courage of protesters, including his daughter, as they walked through the city unarmed, in spite of the threat of more attacks.

In the letter, Le Clézio told his daughter that the Paris massacre occurred because his generation had failed to prevent "racist crimes and sectarian deviation." He said it's now up to the current and future generations to make their world better. How? With respect and inclusion.

"I have heard it said that this is a war. Undoubtedly, the spirit of evil is present everywhere," Le Clézio wrote. He went on to say, however, that any war should be against injustice, against society's "abandonment of some young people" and the refusal to "share the benefits of culture and the possibilities of social success."

Le Clézio"s letter invites readers to consider the human condition of the attackers. "Three assassins, born and bred in France, horrified the world with a barbaric crime," he wrote. And yet "they are not barbarians" but rather common people you could meet any day.

One day they turned to crime because "the life around them offered nothing but a closed world without a place for them, or so they thought," Le Clézio argued. They lost "control of their lives" and gave in to the "first breath of vengeance" that came their way, "mistaking alienation for religion."

France, he concluded, must get rid of its "ghettos" and overcome the "meanness of spirit gnawing away" at its democratic society.

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