This is the first novel I’ve read by the famously reclusive Nobel Prize-winning Patrick Modiano. He’s been on my list since I read Victoria’s excellent piece on him at Tales from the Reading Room. He also made a little cameo appearance in The Red Notebook which I read a little while ago and when So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood arrived it seemed that this year was set to be my Modiano year. It’s a compelling, unsettling novella about memory and the tricks it plays on us, or rather the tricks we play on it.
Author Jean Daragane is startled from the silence of his Paris flat by a phone call. It’s at least three months since the phone last rang, disturbing his carefully maintained solitude. The caller, who identifies himself as Gilles Ottolini, has rung to tell Daragane that his address book has been found. Suspicious at Ottolini’s slightly threatening tone, Daragane agrees to meet him in a café. He’s hardly missed the address book – rarely needs such a thing – and wonders if he should ignore the appointment. When he turns up Ottolini is there with a young, ethereally beautiful woman who calls herself Chantal. Ottolini has found a number for Guy Torstel in Daragane’s address book and wants to pick his brains about the man whose name appeared in his first novel several decades ago. It seems that Daragane’s suspicions may be justified, and all the more so when Chantal rings him at 2 am then turns up with Ottlolini’s ‘dossier’ on Torstel. Odd overlaps between the couple’s story and Daragane’s past emerge. He begins to remember the woman he lived with for a year as little boy, the parade of shady figures who visited her house. What happened there? How did his ‘fickle parents’ come to leave him with Annie who several people knew had been imprisoned? Who were the people who visited at odd hours? Modiano leaves a whole string of questions unanswered in this novella, hardly longer than a short story but packing a powerful punch.
Modiano’s book is quietly understated. Its unsettling tone and shifting narrative leaves the reader constantly on edge wondering what Ottolini and Chantal are up to, then what happened to Daragane as a child. Daragane is the quintessential unreliable narrator, frequently reiterating how flimsy his memories are: drifting ‘away like bubbles of soap or fragments of a dream that vanished on waking’; ‘a faraway voice picked up late at night on the radio’. He can barely remember the first novel he wrote let alone the details of what may have happened over forty years ago but as he tells us ‘In the end, we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful’. It’s a perplexing novel, one that will stay with me for some time, I think. It’s not a book to be read if you’re hoping for a solution to a mystery – gripping though that is – more one to read for the elegant beauty of its writing and its reflections on what we remember and what we choose not to.