Modiano, Patrick. “Missing Person” (“Verba Mundi”), translated by Daniel Weissbort, David RGodine , 2004.
Searching for Identity
Patrick Modiano brings us a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation that is here referred to as, the black hole of French memory. For ten years Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a onetime client, into his detective agency. Guy uses Hutte’s files as well as his directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century but he has few leads. Could he really be the young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Maybe he was someone else—maybe he is disappeared scion of a prominent local family. He interviews strangers and is half-clues tantalize him until, finally, he finds something that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.
At first I thought I was reading a detective thriller but I realized that this book has another level. It is also a meditation on the nature of self and as that it is haunting. It is not just the story that pulls the reader in; it is also the lush prose of Modiano that has been beautifully translated by Daniel Weissbort, draws his readers into the intoxication of a rare literary experience.
Some thirty years ago, this book won the Prix Goncourt (before it was translated into English). It was then described as an “elliptical, engrossing rumination on the essence of identity and the search for self. It is set in postwar Paris and follows an amnesiac now known as Guy Roland. When his boss retired, Roland set out to find his past. He conducted this most personal of investigations and began to suspect that he might have used multiple identities and these caused him to live a mysteriously compartmentalized existence. He might even have been fleeing the German occupation when his memory was wiped away. Is it through Roland’s explorations that we understand the author’s observation that we all live in a world where “the sand keeps the traces of our footsteps only a few moments.” The human is driven to preserve those footsteps for as long as he breathes.
Modiano’s uses the subjects of mystery and horror, indicating them without outwardly talking about them and as he does he opens the doors to the past. What makes the book so wonderful is that it is so vague. Europe becomes a maze and Roland walks around inside of it. There are no points of references and no orientation but there is a sense of confidence.
The first few lines had me hooked and I found it hard to understand that this book was originally published in 1978 (in French) yet it is still very relevant today. The idea is simple—a detective, suffering from amnesia, sets out to recover his identity, following a variety of strange leads. “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop; the shower had started when Hutte left me.” In just three words, the first sentence has us asking questions.
Patrick Modiano is the first important French novelist to investigate the memory of Vichy and the recovery of life in a post War France. The concept is totally implausible— Modiano is less interested in the mechanism of Guy’s search for self than in what that search will reveal. The detective will follow a number of clues, each time finding somebody who will give him a tiny part of his story, but not the whole of it. Almost all his informants seem glad to talk with him; they invite him to their homes and give him boxes of souvenirs to go away with. This, even as Guy himself is having to pose as someone else to gain their confidence, trying on one possible role after another, as he gradually works out who he must be. And, as he does so, he begins to have flashes of memory of his own.
Modiano has said publicly that many of his novels use memory to explore the experience of his father, who was Jewish but survived the occupation. That does not appear to be the specific theme here, although references to “those years of night” crop up increasingly among the protagonist’s informants. Whatever interpretation one chooses to give to the book shows that the reader has been impressed with what he read and to me that is one of the qualities of literature—it makes us think.