Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Des traces subsistent dans des registres et l'on ignore où ils sont cachés et quels gardiens veillent sur eux et si ces gardiens consentiront à vous les montrer

Rue des boutiques obscuresRue des boutiques obscures by Patrick Modiano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Je ne suis rien. Rien qu'une silhouette claire, ce soir-là, à la terrasse d'un café."
Ainsi commence (thus commences) Rue des boutiques obscures de Patrick Modiano - a blank, a void, a man without an identity.

Guy Roland is an amnesiac detective who, now retired, decides to embark on his most puzzling case yet - the search for himself. Along the way, a myriad clues serve as his compass. Some are factual information, like addresses and telephone numbers provided by Hutte (his old employer); others are vague sentences dropped here and there by strangers who are not as distant as they seem; and some are material, like an old photo of friends found in a box of memories ("tout finissait dans de vieilles boîtes de chocolat ou de biscuits. Ou de cigares.").

The reader is immediately pulled into our narrator's search for his own past. We scrutinize every hint he receives, sympathize with him when he loses a lead, and struggle to connect the constellation of people, places and locations that dots the obscure sky of his journey. In a way that adds nuanced layers to the storyline, Guy's memory seems to return as he makes progress: he recalls "des bribes" (snatches, fragments) of his past, and the road becomes less obscure.
Oftentimes, Guy is quick to believe that a certain man he learns about is him, only to suffer disappointment soon after (reinforcing my belief that the question of "who am I?" is one of the most poignant in literature).

At first, it seems that we are only dealing with a personal history (Guy's). As the novel evolves, however, and as more characters are pulled into the web of this complex search for identity, we are beset with mysteries from every angle: an assassination. A suicide. A couple separated in a snowstorm in 1943. Indeed, we come face to face with a vaster history still: the Nazi-occupation of France.

In English, this book is (unjustly) titled, Missing Person.  Perhaps this gives readers the expectation that the ending should bring around closure, and that a person should be found. Yet, as the French title fittingly reveals, we are still somewhat wandering "une rue des boutiques obscures" at the end of the novel. Such an ending (which I've become used to, in fact e.g. Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki), however, is always the most striking. With Guy pursuing a past that is still somewhat shrouded in a veil of obscurity, while heading to Rome to locate the exact "Rue des Boutiques Obscures" itself, the novel concludes with mystery - like it began - but also with renewed hope and purpose. Rue des Boutiques is a compelling narrative about memory, history, and uncovering what is deeply personal to us - despite the fact that our lives are quick to dissipate into the night, "se dissiper dans le soir."

“Je crois qu'on entend encore dans les entrées d'immeubles l'écho des pas de ceux qui avaient l'habitude de les traverser et qui, depuis, ont disparu. Quelque chose continue de vibrer après leur passage, des ondes de plus en plus faibles, mais que l'on capte si l'on est attentif.”

"I think we still hear, in the entrances of buildings, the echo of the footsteps of those who used to cross them, but have since disappeared. Something continues to vibrate after their passage, waves that grow increasingly weak, but that one picks up if one is paying attention. "

View all my reviews