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Monday, October 5, 2015

So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood by Patrick Modiano

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 160 pages, $24, translated from French by Euan Cameron

French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Would I have read this author if he had not won the award? Well, no, because his books were hard to find in an English translation prior to receiving the Nobel, and I didn’t even know who he was. Some of his books are hyped as atmospheric mysteries. Hmmm. Big yes for atmosphere. Little yes for mystery. I recently mentioned that one of the reasons I like mysteries is because the villain gets his/her just desserts in the end. Modiano deals in ambiguity, and that is what I had at the end.

“So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood” tells a story of a crime in brief pieces, moving back and forth in time. And, were I to read it a second time, I would then (hopefully) have the whole story. Modiano does not pile-drive home his plot points, such as they are. He does have a recurring theme that comprises the bulk of “Neighborhood,” however, and it is the nebulous state of memory.

Aging author Jean Daragane lives alone. It appears he does most things alone.

When you have been too long on your own — he had not spoken to anyone since the beginning of the summer — you become suspicious and touchy towards your fellow men and you risk assessing them incorrectly.

The mysterious Gilles Ottolini telephones Daragane (in a voice “dreary and threatening”) one day. He has found Daragane’s address book and wants to return it. Has Daragane been alone too long? Has he created Ottolini and his equally mysterious companion, Chantal Grippay, just to have company? Ottolini wants to know about a name in Daragane’s address book, but Daragane doesn’t recognize it. Who is Guy Torstel? Ottolini reminds Daragane that Torstel’s name appears in his first book. Not only does Daragane not remember Torstel, he only vaguely remembers his first book.

There are repressed childhood memories that Daragane struggles alternately to let rise up and to bury further down. They may have to do with the murder of a young woman in 1951 who may have known another young woman who may have been his caregiver (or kidnapper?). Perhaps Ottolini and Grippay are imaginary contrivances his subconscious mind is using to bring those memories into the light of day.

[H]e saw this period of his life through a frosted window. It allowed a vague clarity to filter through, but you could not make out the faces or even the figures. A glazed window, a sort of protective screen. Perhaps, thanks to deliberate forgetfulness, he had managed to protect himself from this past for good.

“Neighborhood” is littered with references to forgetting, amnesia, blankness. When Daragane is confronted with material which may contain important clues to the childhood trauma:

But no sooner had he started his reading than he experienced an unpleasant sensation: the sentences became muddled and other sentences suddenly appeared that overlaid the previous ones and disappeared without giving him time to decipher them. He was confronted with a palimpsest in which all the various writings were jumbled together and superimposed, and moved about like bacilli seen through a microscope.

If you read Modiano with the hope of a cracking detective story, put that hope aside. “Neighborhood” is a deeply moving psychological riddle with a purposely muddled punchline. Its dark, noirish atmosphere will wrap you in a soft, foggy cocoon. Perhaps you will like it, perhaps not. Perhaps you won’t remember it at all.

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