Waking the Dead

Taking Patrick Modiano, curator of occupied Paris, beyond francophone shores.

Written by Sudeep Paul | Published:May 23, 2015 4:17 am

The Night Watch, Patrick Modiano, Ring Roads, Patrick Modiano, book, book review, Indian ExpressBook: The Night Watch
Author: Patrick Modiano
Translated by: Patricia Wolf
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 130
Price: Rs 299

Book: Ring Roads
Author: Patrick Modiano
Translated by: Caroline Hillier
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 146
Price: Rs 299

In his 1983 essay My Paris, Saul Bellow, observing how new buildings had made dingy old districts like Passy, today’s fashionable 16th Arrondissement, “almost unrecognisable”, meditates on the stubbornness of the “native Parisian grisaille”, the “dogged northern grey” that will resist colour: “The gloom will have its way… Parisian gloom is not simply climatic; it is a spiritual force that acts not only on building materials… but also on character, opinion, and judgement.”

A century after Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, which begat the short-lived “city mysteries” genre that changed the perception of city spaces, an undefended Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940. The City of Light went dark and became a strange place, “absent from itself”. Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano was born in 1945, eleven and a half months after Paris was liberated, not in the middle of the Paris Commune’s tumult like Marcel Proust (born in the 16th Arrondissement), but close enough to the occupation to be its investigator — and curator-in-chief. Modiano, a passionate walker of the Parisian street, drew a lesson from the 19th century flâneur — the purposeful stroller, “an amateur detective and investigator of the city” in the words of Walter Benjamin — who embodied the law of authorial distance, which Modiano aptly phrased as being “at the margins of life in order to describe it”. Not immersed in it, but not so far removed as to lose empathy.

The Night Watch (originally published as Night Rounds) and Ring Roads (1969 and 1972, respectively), belong to Modiano’s Occupation Trilogy, which began with La Place de l’Étoile (1968). The translations, revised here by Frank Wynne, go back to 1971 and 1974. These early works establish Modiano’s preoccupation with time and memory, recalled by the Academy when it credited him with uncovering the “life-world of the occupation”. Except, for a writer of his generation, the search for lost time doesn’t culminate in time regained but in shoring fragments against oblivion — police files, photos, newspaper cuttings, etc. The object of his narrator’s wanderings is the past, reconstructing the lives of missing people, giving form to “ungraspable human destinies”, and cataloguing facts recovered from the silence and shame. The result can be a sombre late masterpiece like Dora Bruder (1997, available in translation as The Search Warrant, 2000).

In Ring Roads, the young, Jewish narrator looks for his lost father, encountering the anti-Semitism and crime that had surfaced from the underbelly. And how does he find Paris? “A zone of silence and mellow half-light where the memories of dead years and broken promises tug at the heart.” The young narrator of Night Watch is caught in the contradiction of being a double agent, informing the Carlingue (French Gestapo), headquartered in the 16th Arrondissement, about a Resistance cell while keeping that cell abreast of the criminals who serve as the occupiers’ eyes and ears in blacked-out Paris. His original sin is to stroll through life passively, “half asleep”. He must, paradoxically, pay for getting too involved by failing to choose wisely.

An outsider like Italo Calvino could say, “Maybe to write about Paris I ought to leave, to distance myself from it, if it is true that all writing starts out from a lack or an absence”. But Modiano was grounded by his birth, conditioned by the Parisian gloom at the heart of which was an absence of memory: “the Paris of the occupation was always a kind of primordial darkness. Without it, I would never have been born.” Thus, the past matters because it ought to help understand the present. Those who lived through that darkness wanted to forget everything beyond their daily preoccupations, which had helped maintain an illusion of life “as before”.

Like Modiano, the children of these survivors would ask questions, only to be met with silence. Born in 1945, “after the cities had been destroyed and entire populations had disappeared”, Modiano was left to work it out for himself. The use of memory, in this project, becomes an art that not only gives voice to the “anonymous and the unknown” but weds a city’s topography and its erased lives to the wandering writer, much like the dogged northern grey survives change. The much debated 2014 literature Nobel should have, at least, the desirable effect of making Modiano read beyond francophone shores.

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