Wednesday started off like every other winter day in Paris. I slept too late because the mornings are so dark. From my kitchen window, I could see the little red lights at the top of the Eiffel Tower, which were hidden by deep fog the day before. I made a pot of strong French coffee, microwaved a cup of milk, boiled water for oatmeal, and sat down with a short fable by Jean de la Fontaine—“The Frog Who Wanted to Be an Ox”—to begin translating. La Fontaine was the French Aesop, and published his first fables in 1668. In his poems, animals talk about human interests. Lions, weasels, rabbits, frogs, oxen, rats, cats, dogs, wolves, monkeys, ducks, and eagles serve up truths in humorous narratives. During his lifetime, La Fontaine was considered licentious by some of his readers.
I find translation almost impossible, but I persevere because the results seem passable. In this manner, slowly, I am teaching myself French. A few hours passed quickly, until my thoughts were interrupted by the wailing of French police sirens in the distance. So I took a break and turned the television to France 24, which broadcasts an English-language news channel.
François Hollande, the French President, was speaking to reporters at the scene of a shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly French satirical news magazine, where a short time before two armed gunmen, carrying Kalashnikovs, had stormed into the weekly editorial meeting, called out individuals by name—editors, cartoonists, an economist, and others—and shot them dead. Along the way, out on the street of this Parisian residential neighborhood, they shot a policeman, too, who lay writhing on the pavement, before they shot him again, at point-blank range, in the head. It was plain that the perpetrators hadn’t come to die. They had come to kill. One of them opened the trunk of the getaway car and seemed to lose a shoe, which he picked up and threw in the back of the car. They shouted that the Prophet had been avenged, referring to the newspaper’s history of satirizing the Prophet Muhammad. (Other targets have been Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Orthodox Jews, immigrants, nuns, the police, and others.) One of the armed men had left his identity card in an abandoned car. All these astonishing events were filmed from windows and rooftops by Parisians with cell phones, and the footage was almost immediately aired throughout France and the world.
Arriving at the scene, President Hollande called it an act of terrorism, and security in France was raised to the highest level. The terrorists were now on the run, so the Army was mobilized to defend churches and schools. It was plain that the French considered this an attack not just on Charlie Hebdo but on French values, freedom of expression, and diversity. The aim of the perpetrators had been to strike fear and to stop not only further publication of caricatures of Muhammad but the magazine itself. Barack Obama, in a televised interview, called the shootings “a cowardly and evil attack.” John Kerry, at the State Department, speaking in French with emotion, said that the values that Americans share with the French people—a universal belief in the freedom of expression—would not be eradicated. He reminded listeners that France was a birthplace of democracy. By evening, many thousands had gathered in the streets and squares of towns and cities in France to show their solidarity, instead of allowing the incident to divide them. “Our best weapon is our unity,” President Hollande told his country.
The perpetrators had appeared to be well-organized, carrying out the attack in broad daylight and behaving like youthful jihadis. News people wondered if there would be a backlash against France’s Muslims, who make up as much as ten per cent of the population. They wondered if journalists and cartoonists would need to be more cautious in the future, censoring themselves to remain safe. The killings were called the worst attack in fifty years on French soil. Hollande told his countrymen, “We must be ourselves.” Again, in the distance there were wailing sirens. He said that France had always vanquished its enemies by coming together to fight for freedom of expression, democracy, culture, and pluralism. To use weapons against those armed only with humor was the work of madmen. Though thousands did not die, as they had in the Twin Towers, the perpetrators seemed to have found the heart of the French spirit and driven a stake into it. In his speech, Hollande appeared strong, rather than arrogant, finding the right words to respond to the frightening events of the day. We must be ourselves, he asserted again. And part of the intelligence of France is to satirize and laugh. “You have to laugh. Do more cartoons,” a woman at a rally told a news person.
“In a secular country, there should be no left and right, no Catholics or Jews or Muslims,” another Parisian said to the camera. “Freedom is stronger than vulgarity,” a guest on a TV program insisted. “We feel like we’re invulnerable, and then one day we learn otherwise,” a man on the street admitted. The perpetrators were quickly identified as two brothers. As the hunt for the suspects continued, the public’s safety was the most important thing. “We have all the capacity to believe in our country,” Hollande said with force. Then there were other incidents: a homemade grenade lobbed at a mosque, shots fired at prayer meeting, a blast at a kebab-restaurant, and later, more deaths—a policewoman and, separately, four shoppers at a kosher grocery store. France and all its people had been struck.
In the mid-afternoon, I set out on foot to visit the poet and translator Claire Malroux, who lives about thirty minutes away. Malroux spent her early childhood, before the war, in a small rural village, where her parents were elementary-school teachers. Because of her father’s involvement in the French Resistance, he was incarcerated and died in the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. As I sat with her, I still heard wailing sirens, and wondered if the events of the day reminded her of similar scenes during the Nazi occupation. I thought of my mother, a first-generation French woman, who spoke French and Armenian as a girl. Her parents emigrated to Marseille from Asia Minor after the Armenian genocide of 1915, and as a young woman she worked at the military-base exchange, where she met my father, an American soldier. She only had a high-school education. She never seemed to have an identity crisis. Throughout her life, she belonged to numerous communities without conforming to one.
And I thought of La Fontaine’s fables, which Malroux and I love. La Fontaine was sometimes considered irreligious, too, and went to live in Paris, where he stayed for forty years. His fables explore the foibles of human nature. He wanted each to have a body and soul—a little story and then a moral. They can be playful, funny, anarchic, satirical, didactic, and mean, in order to reveal ingeniously something about ourselves. Like cartoons, they sometimes appear best fit for children. This, in part, is why the fables are dedicated to a six-year-old. They speak to something quite basic in us and in our nature, something still developing, perhaps, into feeling or thought, like a frog that wants to be equal in size to an ox and inflates herself so much that she explodes. The frog is motivated, of course, by envy. But is the fable also perhaps about two citizens trying to outdo one another? Is it about someone angry or needy bringing about his own ruin? Is it about something demented within all of us? Or is it just about how foolish we creatures are? Whatever the case, it’s the wondering and the laughter that make us feel alive.
Henri Cole is the author of eight collections of poetry. A new book, “Nothing to Declare,” is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He teaches at Ohio State University and is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.