This short work has all the elements of a noir detective mystery, while also being disturbing and haunting. Having read about the famous Nobel Prize winner but never having read one of his works, I decided So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, published in 2015, translated from French, was the place to start.
The novel focuses on an aging, reclusive author named Jean Daragane living alone in his Paris apartment. One day he is disturbed by a telephone call from a stranger, Gilles Ottolini, who has found Daragane’s lost address book and presses him about a long-forgotten name in it, Guy Torstel, whose name appears in Daragane’s first novel.
Although he cannot immediately remember Torstel, Jean nevertheless finds himself reading through a dossier about a 1951 murder case, given to him by Gilles’s girlfriend, Chantal Grippay, These papers have names that were once familiar to him, including Torstel. Slowly, a half-forgotten history unfolds. Daragane begins to remember periods in his past when, abandoned by his parents, he lived with the showgirl-courtesan Annie on the outskirts of Paris. He recalls “secret staircases and hidden doors”; Modiano hints at a murder, a cover-up, a flight to Italy – a quietly haunting search for the truth of a postwar French childhood, where nothing is certain.
The ending of the novel comes abruptly, leaving the reader wondering which of Daragane’s memories are accurate and which have been embellished from childhood reveries. More importantly, Modiano leaves the reader with the question of how reliable memory is, and how an event or word can trigger long buried or forgotten recollections. I seem to have more of those these days – finding an old photo that recreates a moment long ago. Recently, a comment from someone I have not seen for years brought tears to my eyes, as I recalled a peripheral experience I thought I had forgotten. Or, as Modiano might posit, maybe had not happened at all, except in a dream.
Modiano’s story effectively nudged me from the seemingly unresolved detective story I was reading into thoughtful and sometimes haunting musings in unexpected directions. Short, confusing, and powerful. I will look for more of his complicated, shape-shifting novels.
Perhaps the best way to understand Modiano is to heed the Stendhall epigraph he provides in the beginning pages: “I cannot provide the reality of events; I only convey their shadow.”
It seems I have read not only this author but also this book – before in 2015 and 2017. Maybe that only makes the case for memory being unreliable.