How classy can you be? That’s what I thought when I discovered the front page of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo. Yet how witty, too. It reads two ways. Last week, Charlie Hebdo dismissed the homage paid to them by world politicians, clerics and queens whom they had always ridiculed, in straightforward terms: “We vomit on our new friends,” they said. Now it’s a joke: “If everybody loves us, why not Mohammed himself while we’re at it?” But at the same time, the cartoon is a powerful statement on the perversion of Islam by fanatics. Yes, right now Mohammed too would be Charlie, because he would be horrified by the crime committed in his name. When Zineb Rhazoui explained that the title “All is forgiven” was also a call to forgiveness for the murderers, I thought I would cry. Se Questo E Un Uomo — Charlie Hebdo is giving us a lesson in humanity. And if religion is about love and mercy, then Charlie Hebdo is my Bible right now.
How pompous can you get? Here I am, moralizing about a Charlie Hebdo cover. Drawing lessons from Public Enemy Number 1, the irreverent newspaper that only aimed at shocking its readers! How ridiculous. And how unconvincing, no doubt, to those who sing in the choir of Holier-than-thou Charlie bashers. The fact is, we (Charlie) and they (bigots) are in an absurd situation. It is absurd to write a review on a Charlie Hebdo cartoon: Charlie Hebdo is, in essence, a teenage fanzine drawn by crazy cats, which makes you giggle by poking fun at sacred cows. Yet now it’s this global phenomenon, scrutinized all over the world, and forced to deploy treasures of tact and intelligence to combine their new exposure with their biting wit.
In the good old days, Charlie Hebdo issued 50,000 weekly copies. They didn’t even have a website; they were strictly paper. The only way you could get exposed to their work was when sighting the corner of the magazine pressed between other papers at a newsagent. They never asked to go global, and let’s face it: The ones who spread their cartoons are not Muslim-haters but fanatics and bigots who could not stand that the whole Muslim community did not know that a heinous blasphemy was committed. They could have ignored Charlie Hebdo. If they love being offended, then let them have their perverse fun. But they went out of their way to kill 10 great guys who had always fought against injustice and never laid a hand on anybody. And now they complain that Charlie Hebdo should censor itself because it went global! Oh the irony.
Just a few days from having lost their best friends, the survivors of a decimated team of cartoonists had to deal with an impossible situation—economically, politically, ethically, and theologically. They did amazingly well, and while I always liked them, I now deeply admire them. Indeed, what is most amazing is that the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo is what it ought to be: funny, silly, irreverent, and deep in its absurdity.
Did you see the one by Dutreix, cartoonist at Fluide Glacial, a satirical French magazine in the spirit of Charlie Hebdo, with the fortune-teller who tells Cabu, Elsa, Wolinsky, Charb, Philippe, and “Uncle” Bernard, that they will be killed by terrorists, and the death knell will sound for them at Notre-Dame; that there will be a big march with Hollande, Valls, Sarkozy, Copé, Merkel, Cameron, and even Netanyahu, with tricolor flags floating while millions sing La Marseillaise; that some will want them to rest in the Pantheon; that the Nasdaq and the French Academy will say “I am Charlie,” and the Pope will say his prayers for them—and you see them cracking up with laughter because it all sounds so blatantly absurd?
And yet it did happen: I never thought I’d be Charlie, and now I am. And it’s fun.
Olivier Tonneau is a lecturer in French Literature at Homerton College, Cambridge (UK) and has published on Blaise Pascal, Denis Diderot and Aimé Césaire.