First published:- October, 2014
Translated by:- Euan Cameron
Publisher:- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Call this a book of mirages and mirrors that distort the contours of visible reality all the time. Call it a lament for the inevitability of change that erases all the landmarks to a place that anchors one to a past self. Call it a psychological thriller, a faux-noir in which people materialize out of thin air to serve as clues to lead the joyless protagonist to a truth too terrible for him to comprehend all at once. (Faux noir because Modiano ingeniously deploys its signature leitmotifs to subvert the genre. The token crook is merely a shady character, the token gangster's moll/seductive siren becomes a sympathetic confidante and the token mystery transforms into a disconcerting odyssey through the maze of time and memory.) But an adroitly spun yarn as this one transcends the imposed boundaries of any such labeling with ease and surprising grace.
One can tell the Nobel committee usually doesn't mess around at least when it comes to this greatest of honours reserved for literary achievement. Only pure artistry could have produced something as perfect as this - a combination of strategically placed expository bits, a dreamy, sublime narrative voice reflecting both a subconscious longing and antipathy for lost time, a melding together of reality and delusion, an overlapping of the worlds of 'was' and 'is', and a cautious but sure-footed unravelling of plot. The last time something this unambiguously postmodern in tone and form had brought me such pure reading pleasure was when I happily surrendered before Ali Smith's rhetorical playfulness in There But for The.
There, on the pavement, in the light of the Indian summer that lent the Paris streets a timeless softness, he once again had the feeling that he was floating on his back.
Author Jean Daragane's world is populated by ghosts - ghost-like individuals who hover over his reality to lead him to places and people he has forgotten and, in all likelihood, does not want to recall, the specter of self-written words that elude his feeble grasp on memory, ghost of a city's turbulent past intruding on the equanimity of the present, ghost of those nauseous years of the Occupation that one cannot shake off despite best efforts. And these myriad ghosts proliferate at the back of his mind to warp his sense of time, creating a stark dissonance between reality and memory that usher in a renewed sense of dislocation. In a way, he seems like a vagrant spirit himself, adrift in life like flotsam after a devastating tsunami, alienated from the rituals of work, love, relationships. But this deceptive placidity of the surface of his consciousness is disturbed by a phone call out of the blue which sets into motion a chain of fated meetings and ridiculous coincidences which eventually allow him to find a way back into his past, a journey he undertakes with considerable reluctance and disguised trepidation. I'll leave you to summon the curiosity to find out where this journey eventually leads him.
It would appear, he often used to say to himself, that children never ask themselves any questions. Many years afterwards, we attempt to solve puzzles that were not mysteries at the time and we try to decipher half-obliterated letters from a language that is too old and whose alphabet we don't even know.
Like a true master of the craft, Modiano only ever mentions the War in passing, subtly inserting roadsigns which point to the ineffaceable marks of damage on a Paris which itself appears like a figment of Daragane's imagination at times, as if it might flicker out of focus any moment to reappear in a pale imitation of an unrecognizable former avatar. But the memory of war lingers on in the desolation of rue de l'Arcade and the boulevard of Champs-Élysées witnessing the flow of time like a dispirited sentinel, in Daragane's uneasy perambulations through the courtyard of Louvre and the mist-laden autumn air of the rue de l'Ermitage. An amnesia sets in when the currents of time gradually whittle down the tangible reminders of a tragic event into unfamiliar forms but reality forgotten is never reality expunged.
...And yet he now wondered whether he had not dreamed this journey, which had taken place over forty years ago.
Daragane's Paris is tied inextricably to the past just as he finds himself colliding with the vision of an abandoned, forgotten child navigating the unfamiliar nooks and corners of an unknown neighborhood, perhaps, pained and relieved in equal measure to have finally remembered that which he was so intent on forgetting. I could not have wished for a more befitting sense of closure for our traumatized narrator.
**with thanks to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for an ARC**
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