The Search Warrant
The Peripatetics of Memory
If a detective has a clear case to solve and the flaneur has nowhere he has to be, then Patrick Modiano often wonders what happens when you put the enquiring mind of the detective into the body of a perambulator. When Hannah Arendt discussed Walter Benjamin she noted "what all other cities seem to permit only reluctantly to the dregs of society strolling, idling, flanerie Paris streets actually invite everyone to do." (New Yorker) Inevitably, Modiano's books are usually located in the French capital. Often they are set in the present but invoke the past, ferociously combining present fictions with past actualities, and frequently bringing up from the dead the years during WWII where the French collaborated with the Germans. There are good reasons for this that concern Modiano's own biography. Though he was born at the end of the war in 1945, with a Jewish father, Leo Robson and others have talked about the dense fog he creates in his work: "the fog being around his father's conduct during the Occupation, in particular his possible involvement with the Gestapo. (His father's library contained anti-Semitic material such as Brassilach's Notre avant-guerre and Celine's pamphlets.)" Yet what is most interesting perhaps about Modiano's work is that though biographically it indicates a preoccupation, narratively it suggests merely a fascination.
One can read into Modiano's life a very good reason why he might, again and again, show us men with time on their hands investigating the life of people who lost their lives at the hands of others, seeing a determination to counter the anti-semitic denial of his father with an ongoing need to stare insistently at those years of collaboration. But that would be to find in the life the key to a work that usually resists such epistemological assertiveness. He may say: "As a child and a teenager I was very impressionable ... So forceful are these impressions that one becomes a prisoner of one's memories. There are images that pursue you all your life ... As a child, my family life was fairly unsettled and I was often left to my own devices. I began to wander through the streets of the city and would feel a mixture of fear and fascination as I forced myself to go further from home each time." (Guardian) These remarks explain his purpose but not the work and in such an explanation one counters it. This claim rests on seeing a cause and effect while Modiano's fiction is interested in both the rupturing of such certainties and at the same time generating not only fiction out of fact but utilising in his fiction factual details that can then have factual consequences. In So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood, the narrator says the central character "had written this book only in the hope that she might get in touch with him. Writing a book, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch." In the book to which we will pay special attention, The Search Warrant, the narrator becomes fascinated by the life of Dora Bruder, a teenager in Paris during the war who went missing for a few months and who, like everyone else staying in the school was transferred from Drancy and then sent on to Auschwitz. In June 2015, the Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, in Modiano's presence, named a street Promenade Dora Bruder. Bruder may have been a real-life personage that Modiano put in his book but it is as an enigmatic character within his fiction that she has become well enough known to have a street named after her. If Modiano sometimes writes with the idea that a person from the past that he knew might come back into his present because of the novel he has written, then equally he can take from the past the dead and give them a contemporaneous life as a testament to past atrocities.
Yet to understand something of Modiano's work we have to accept the tension that exists between fictional creation, biographical realities and factual topography. To insist that one can find the answer in any of them is to undermine the dizziness generated, which isn't at all the same as saying there is no truth but only perspectives upon it. Modiano's fiction isn't an epistemological game, though it is constantly concerned with puzzles; it acknowledges though that the more complex reality becomes the harder it is to offer sought-after certitudes. This certitude is undermined still further if we think of Paul Ricoeur's approach to memory. While writing on Modiano, France Grenaudier-Klijn notes the significance of the French philosopher's threefold distinction: "Ricoeur labels the 'memoire empeche' (prevented/blocked memory), the 'memoire manipulee' (manipulated memory) and the 'memoire obligee' (Obligated or compulsory memory)." Grenaudier-Klijn goes on to say, "nonetheless, the scriptural process of introducing recurrent referential allusions to particular Parisian street names are an inherent motif in his fictional tapestry; they are inscribed in the fabric of the text, both as spatio-temporal signposts, and as symptoms of the traumatic past burdening the narrator, the to and fro geographical movements of the latter illustrating his ambivalent relationship to the past, a past that he can no more elucidate than turn his back on." Grenaudier-Klijn concludes: "In so doing, and following the distinction made by Ricoeur...the mention of street names is more a matter of anamnesis than of mneme; it goes beyond evocation to enter the realm of active, deliberate yet cautious investigation." ('Street Names in Patrick Modiano')
This might all sound a little dense to be getting on with but if we accept with Ricoeur that memory can be obligatory, manipulated and blocked (which we will say more about later), and that Modiano is a writer interested in the liminality between the fictional, the biographical and the topological, then what he seeks is a fragile anamnesis rather than an assertive memorialisation. When Hidalgo names a pathway after Dora Bruder, this indicates how Modiano's relationship with the mysteries of the past nevertheless can create a categorical reality in the present. A writer only interested in the ludic creation of impossible worlds wouldn't be likely to generate such a consequence. But a writer whose priority was to interrogate the texture of memory wouldn't be likely to expect such an outcome. He is a fiction writer who allows for its possibility but he isn't like a non-fiction journalist who expects their inquiries to produce categorical results: the sort that would lead to statues to forgotten dead heroes or plaques for the persecuted. Modiano doesn't chiefly expose the truth but muses over what it happens to be without denying that some truths can be claimed amongst the rubble of memory. Yet the purpose of the search is the hesitancy not the result. When near the beginning of Afterimage the narrator says he knew someone called Jansen, he adds that he doesn't know whether he is alive or dead before saying that Jansen started to haunt him after the narrator looks at a photo in the nineties that Jansen took of the narrator and his girlfriend in the sixties. He then offers us a few facts: that Jansen was born in 1920 in Antwerp, was interned as a Jew in a Drancy transit camp and knew the famous photographer Robert Capa. Modiano has a habit of creating what we can call factual characters more than fictional ones without arriving at the non-fictional. When a writer creates a fictional character they provide us with a creation that relies on the characteristics but not the facts of the person. When Henry James describes a character in 'The Siege in London' he does so thus: "He was rather a noticeable man, especially since his hair and moustache had turned white. Tall and strong, with a good figure and a bad carriage, he looked capable but indolent, and was usually supposed to have an importance of which he was far from conscious." Here is a more modern equivalent from Saul Bellow: "Corde himself had a deep voice, deeper than the Colonel's, vibrating more. Where the colonel was tight, Corde was inclined to be loose. The colonel's spare hair was slicked straight back, military style; Corde's baldness was more random, a broad bay, a straggling growth of back hair." In both instances, we have what James Wood might regard as "good noticing" when he speaks of similarities and differences in Bellow and Nabokov: "Bellow notices superbly; but Nabokov wants to tell us how important it is to notice. Nabokov's fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing." (How Fiction Works) By this reckoning, Modiano notices little but remembers a lot and this may be propaganda on behalf of good remembering. A writer who notices observes the present but what would noticing in the past look like? How to remember well? Modiano creates character not like James, Bellow and Nabokov who register strongly in a usually more or less entirely fictional world (Bellow does sometimes invoke well-known figures), but imagines characters who live between the actual and the fictional, often building on concrete facts rather than precise observations. The observations often come after the fact, so to speak, and give to the characterisation a hesitancy of perception missing from Bellowian acuteness. In The Search Warrant, after the narrator details what he knows about the character whose past he searches out, he gives her name, her date of birth, and her family status. This he knows; what he doesn't know he can only speculate upon but this speculation allows for the creation of tentative characterisation, based on absence rather than presence. The narrator says that Dora was enrolled in the convent school and muses how tough it must have been before when the girl was living with her parents: "no doubt it was difficult living three to a room in the Boulevard Ornano hotel" he says. But what he doesn't do is give it a descriptive presence a 'purely 'fictional writer would. He cannot because he doesn't have access to that certitude.
What Modiano does have access to however is the factual world that most fictional works utilise much more parsimoniously. Many a novel is content to name countries, often cities and sometimes streets. They may occasionally invoke well-known personages and cultural markers, as Bellow does when he mentions Colin Powell and Michael Jordan in Ravelstein and The New Yorker and Esquire in Herzog. In such instances, the fictional remains the significant world into which the factual fits, but the priority rests on creating fictional presences that are merely augmented by the factual. In Modiano's work, however, the factual gives birth to the imaginative rather than the fictional as it creates numerous suppositions based on the metonymics of memory, based on an associative relationship with names and places as the narrator recalls moments of past experience through his knowledge of present places that may have changed over time. When Modiano announces to the reader where Dora was born, brought up and where she was sent to after staying in the hotel in the 18th arrondissement, in another writer's work the factual will gave way to the fictional as Dora's world is delineated. Modiano instead keeps showing us absences rather than presences, and relies on names and places to sustain this relationship that gets filled in by speculative imagination. Clearly, many a writer does exactly that but they do so by nevertheless making the fictional presence vivid, as we can see in the examples given in James and Bellow's work, rather than keeping it vague. At one moment the narrator in The Search Warrant says, "The Holy Heart of Mary, 60-62 Rue de Picpus, stood at the corner of the Rue de Picpus and the Rue de la Gare-de-Reuilly. In Dora's time, this street still had a countrified air. A high wall ran the length of its left-hand side, shaded by the convent trees." But this is not the setting of a scene as one would expect in a 19th-century novel but a moment to be investigated through the imagination and personal memory. The narrator notes how twice in April 1966 he spent time looking for traces of Dora Bruder around the Holy Heart of Mary and then adds that now, in the nineties, "nothing is left...a modern apartment block stands at the corner of the Rue de la Gare-de-Reuilly and the Rue de Picpus." Here we have absences within absences held together by street names. If the fictional is often in a novel paramount, and the biographical secondary and the topographical a minor feature, Modiano reverses these procedures by making the topos of Paris vital, what seems like the biographically pertinent (the narrator often hints at a life that might well be Modiano's) and the fictional not so much absent but present as a sustained work of imaginative speculation.
The question is why, and the answer seems less one of experimentation than examination: that memory creates a problem that conventional fiction would resolve too quickly. If Modiano were to take a story that he could fictionally reinvent then the past would be depicted but that very access is what Modiano so often acknowledges he does not have. Here we can return to Ricoeur's distinctions about memory and see that Modiano's work coincides with the problems that Ricoeur addresses. For the French philosopher, memory can be blocked which is different from being forgotten. It can be evident in mourning where the individual for various reasons cannot access the past perhaps because it is too traumatic. But it can also be manipulated, so that past events are perceived in a particular way that blinds us to the complexity of their relations. A war, colonial expansion or mistreatment of immigrants may all be couched in a way that refuses to acknowledge the sins of the past and allows such history instead to be perceived as national formation and the cementing of identity. As Abdelmajid Hannoum says, quoting Ricoeur, "it is a fact that there is no historical community that has not been born from a relationship that we can name an original relation to war. What we celebrate under the names of founding events are essentially acts of violence, legitimized after the fact by a State of precarious rights, legitimized, at the limit, by their ancient, outdated character." ('Ricoeur on Memory') Then we have obligatory memory which is often memory that is accepted but which can nevertheless be questioned and altered. If the first often concerns the traumatised memory explored so well by Freud in 'Mourning and Melancholia,' the second is a little like a variation that the winners write history. The third indicates how the winners might memorialise that history; national anthems at sports events, history taught in schools, memorial days and so on. These are all examples of damaged or troublesome memory (as opposed to memorising a poem or a fact which becomes part of automatic memory). Modiano's fictive purpose rests in excavating and working with modes of damaged memory and deploys a variation of his own self as a means by which to examine it. "Leo Robson says that "Modiano's aim has been to place his own personal history against a broader social backdrop. He has called himself 'a plant that grew out of a dung heap' referring to the Occupation to which he keeps returning". (New Statesman) However, this seems less a biographical need to express than an imaginative desire to expose, as though the raw nerves of personal trauma meets the historically half-buried. When Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the committee reckoned that by using the art of memory he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation" (Guardian)
In this sense, Modiano's very early work wouldn't quite fit that description. Like most of his novels, it concerns questions about the Occupation but it is also more clearly answering those questions in dramatic form. La Place de L'etoile is a first-person, free-wheeling account of the protagonist in the thick of things, even if he isn't afraid sometimes to rely on the odd aide-memoire. "At this particular point in my biography, I think it is best to consult the newspapers. Did I enter a seminary as Perrache advised me? Henry Brodeaux's article "Fr. Raphael Schlemilovitch: a new Cur d'Ars" (Action francaise, October 23, 19) would seem to suggest as much..." But the story usually moves along at a brisk dramatic pace as he mixes fiction with fact. "I am skulking around the Berghof when I meet Eva for the first time. The instant attraction is mutual. Hitler comes to Obersalzberg once a month. We get along very well. He gracefully accepts my role as escort to Eva." Here we have less the indeterminacy of memory than the irony of the historically famous meeting the anonymously fictional. This does seem closer to the metafictional games of a work like Coover's book on Nixon, The Public Burning, or Barthelme's knowing stories that allow fictional characters to exist alongside actual personages, like the narrator knowing Pancho Villa in the latter's 'Bluebeard'.
But the work interests us more when Modiano's protagonists are at a greater remove, in a state of precarious inquiry, where, as GD Dess says, "they count on their memory and the memory of others to help them do it. That is why Modiano's narrators are constantly looking through newspaper articles, police files, and phone books, seeking confirmation, evidence, something: "some tangible proof," the narrator of Suspended Sentences says, 'that it wasn't all in your head.'" (Los Angeles Review of Books) At the end La Place de l'etoile, it looks like much of it has been, as we find the central character on a psychoanalyst's couch, but much of Modiano's other work is of interest because it is peripatetic rather than reclining; based on moving in the world as readily as recalling thoughts in one's mind. Doing the latter wouldn't be adding much to the Proustian project of memory but if Modiano takes an aspect of Proust further, without suggesting in any way he is Proust's equal, he can be seen to make the Proustian much more topographic and thus memory much less subjective. If we are in memory rather than memory in us, if Ricoeur draws from Bergson to acknowledge that in a strict sense memory is always in the present, that for Ricoeur it is a phenomenological fact rather than a cellular reality, something invoked through the world rather than sealed inside our brains, then what better way of acknowledging this than by characters who move around Paris as though inside an enormous head that is capable of constantly evoking the past? "Thus Ricoeur places his book within the framework of Bergson by framing the issue of memory in terms of recognition and survival," Abdelmajid Hannoum says, it is "a way of paying homage to Bergson, who remains, for Ricoeur, the philosopher who 'understood the close link between what he calls 'surviving images' and the phenomena of recognition." ('Paul Ricoeur on Memory') As Bergson says, "memory actualized in an image differs then, profoundly from pure memory. The image is a present state and its sole share in the past is the memory from which it arose. Memory, on the contrary, powerless as long as it remains without utility, is pure from all admixture of sensation, is without attachment to the present, and is, consequently unextended." As Bergson later says "the chief office of conscience is to preside over action and to enlighten choice.' (Matter and Memory)
In much of Modiano's work memory becomes active because it is closely linked to action even if it seems to be interested in bringing up the past. However, rather than seeing books like The Search Warrant, Afterimages and others like Flowers of Ruin or Suspended Sentences as novels determined to discover the past, as in very different ways a detective novel might work out the precise details of a murder committed, or a Holocaust novel will reveal the mild-mannered bar-owner was in the past a butcher in a concentration camp, as both the detective and the narrator want the past uncovered, Modiano's characters appear to exist in a Paris where the search is a constant exploration of time present that is also revealing and hiding times past, aware of the multiple and the manifold while one moves through space. As the narrators says in The Search Warrant: "And suddenly, one has a feeling of vertigo, as if Cosette and Jean Valjean, to escape Javert and his police, have taken a leap into space: thus far, they have been following real Paris streets and now, abruptly, Victor Hugo, thrusts them into the imaginary district of Paris which he calls the Petit Picpus."
Modiano brings together the fictional world of Hugo, the actual world of Paris that the narrator moves through, and the hypothetical world he creates for Dora based on the facts he has available. But what is actual is the narrator moving through space, finding in the topography of the French capital reveries that dissolve the categories of fact, fiction and supposition. The narrator in The Search Warrant says, "I remember the intensity of my feelings while I was on the run in January 1960 - an intensity such as I have seldom known." He draws similarities between a moment when he ran away from a boarding school with Dora running away from the convent almost twenty years earlier. There is potentially insensitive egoism in this: in the narrator (whose biography resembles Modiano's) comparing his escape in the post-war years with Dora's during the war and at a time when Jewish lives were constantly at risk. But there is, even more, a topographic empathy as the narrator in the present moves through the city, musing over the past that incorporates both Dora's escape and his own. It is as if space dissolves but it can only do so because of space in the first instance. All these memories evoked are evident because our narrator is constantly searching through the city to find cues and clues for modes of recollection. If Proust could keep expanding memory out of a sensation, as a taste invokes a memory that invokes a smell which invokes a person that invokes an anecdote and before we know it we are in the life of Swann, then rather than the expansive memories of Proust which suggests an ever-growing ripple from a stone thrown into the water, Modiano's approach to memory is to allow it both more deliberation and greater contingency. The novels are often shown to have similarities with detective fiction but it is as if the detective can't quite keep his mind on the case because each element of the story constantly opens up memory circuits that become as, if not more, important than the case under scrutiny. When Modiano sets up the start of The Search Warrant we may wonder which story from the circuits of memory that are being invoked he will explore. "The time I've spent, waiting in those cafes...first thing in the morning, when it was still dark. Early in the evening, at dusk. Late on, at closing time..." There is a story to tell but that doesn't concern Dora Bruder whose war-time address he would have passed many times during the years that he was waiting in those cafes. As he says, "in 1965, I knew nothing of Dora Bruder" even if he might now wonder whether so much of that waiting was because, "although as yet unaware of it, I was on the track of Dora Bruder and her parents. Already, imperceptibly they were there." This is a paradox that the same time isn't irrresolveable. It is true that he was there and that the Bruders had been there before him but imagine a detective arriving at the scene of a crime years before it was committed, or staking out a place for a crime that had been committed long before but that the detective knew nothing about it? We are beginning to see how close and how far away from detective fiction Modiano happens to be. He is close in the sense that his novels are often investigations. While reading through The Search Warrant, the reader wants to know what exactly happened to Dora, what she did and who she spent time with during the period she escaped from the Convent. These are the sort of inductive questions detective fiction often asks even if there is for the detective a constantly pragmatic need for an answer. When the investigator asks a suspect where they were on the night of the murder, he or she isn't interested in where they were as an empathic concern but to decide whether they are the guilty party. If their alibi is strong they no longer become the detective's concern; if weak, the detective keeps looking for more evidence for their possible guilt. Then the detective may stake out the person's place, seeing who comes in and goes out, follows them around the streets and tries and resolve the case.
However, Modiano in The Search Warrant has no case in front of him but one nebulously in the past. It isn't even as if one knows already about the murder and who was the culprit: Dora Bruder was the victim of the Nazis and died in Auschwitz. Yet it is as though there is an additional culpability that surrounds the crime which is rarely of interest to the detective but which has a certain fascination and significance nevertheless. When the narrator acknowledges that he spent time in the 18th arrondissement next to where Dora lived, there is a threefold temporal problematic that needs to be disentangled. There is the Dora in the early forties living there, then there is the narrator in the mid-sixties who regularly spent time in the cafes around where Dora lived. Finally, there is the narrator in the late eighties who while doing research reads a headline in a newspaper from Paris Soir, 31 December 1941 about a missing girl whose parents wish to hear any information about her. From there he sees his past in hers and recognises how often they would occupy the same space at different times. There was of course no reason why he should have known anything about Dora and yet there is the suggestion that a vague, personal feeling of guilt is a symptom of a broader sense of responsibility that France in the years after the war consistently refused to acknowledge. How often were people like the narrator sitting obliviously in cafes around the city, unaware that in the flat above them someone had been taken away by the Gestapo, had been hiding in someone's apartment hoping to escape the fate of their family, or had been doing deals with Nazi officers on the black market? In what was called the 'trente glorieuses', during the thirty years of growth in France after the war, the priority was forgetting and moving on. But by the late sixties with youthful unrest Oedipally manifesting itself as the younger generation started to ask questions of the older generation, the Occupation became a pressing concern, discussed most clearly, shockingly and problematically in Marcel Ophuls' 1969 film The Sorrow and the Pity. It "was originally commissioned by a government-run TV station. But when director Marcel Ophuls submitted the completed four-and-a-half-hour documentary in 1969, the station refused to screen it. Not because of its length, but because of its disturbing content. Network head Jean-Jacques de Bresson told a government committee that the film destroys myths that the people of France still need". (Guardian) The narrator sitting obliviously in front of Dora Bruder's house unaware of her persecution would have been part of the myth that needed sustaining: the notion that the French weren't culpable during the war and that they were merely bystanders to Nazi atrocities; that while the Nazis could continue to be demonised it was important for national unity that the French people must not.
However, Modiano was more aware than most that this innocence of the French people was suspect. As Adam Shatz notes, "two decades after the end of the war, at the height of its trente glorieuses, France had moved on, but Modiano, the son of a Jewish businessman who had made his living on the black market during the Occupation and a Flemish actress who worked in the Nazi film industry, could not." (London Review of Books) If detective fiction usually finds a culprit, Modiano's work often searches out the culpable, which becomes less about a person who is guilty than a society that can't fully deny its responsibility. If we think again of Ricoeur's approach, we can see how Modiano wants to bring together the modes of faulty memory. If the first, blocked memory, suggests individual memories that can't be faced and the second manipulated memories that are shaped by ideological forces, then the third is commanded memory that becomes more actively induced to create a certain approach to the past. Modiano as an individual would have good reason to block out that past, the dung heap out of which he was born, and France had plenty reason to forget as well. Yet this relationship with memory and forgetting is quite distinct it seems from the sort of forgetfulness Milan Kundera sees under communism. In a famous passage from the beginning of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the narrator notes that in 1948 Communist leader Klement Gottwald stood on the balcony with a comrade next to him. In the cold, Clementis puts his hat on the leader's head and in the months following many thousands of copies were made of this photograph. "Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on the balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald's head." Here we have an example of an oppressively censorial and murderous government and there is horrible irony in Kundera's description. Everybody will know what has been done and there will be no blocked, personal memory in the process of comprehending this. It would seem an extreme and overt example of manipulated and forced memory.
Modiano's work so often hinges instead on prioritising the first, to see in blocked memory an anamnetic need to release what is already known but covered over. Modiano needn't insist that this resembles the airbrushing of post-war Czechoslovakia but it might create from a certain point of view a more frightening epistemological relationship. When Kundera wittily offers his moment of ironic history, he does so in the full awareness of the facts even if Czechoslovakia was still Communist (and Kundera in exile in France) when he published the book in 1979. Modiano usually writes fretfully and without humour about the absence of the facts, determined to discover in the traces which he finds narratives that remain fragments. As his characters search the streets of Paris, they could be described as figures at a loose end, people with both time on their hands and time on their minds, trying to turn the loose ends of their own life, and turn it into tying up the loose ends of others. Yet this search usually ends, as it does in The Search Warrant, unsuccessfully from one point of view but successfully from another. At the end of The Search Warrant, the narrator admits he "shall never know how she [Dora Bruder] spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for the second time. That is her secret." The detective admits failure but the book itself becomes a success. One doesn't only mean that the novel was financially successful and became "what is perhaps his best-loved book" (Guardian), according to his translator Euan Cameron, but that the forgotten Dora Bruder became not just resurrected and speculated upon by Modiano but also memorialised in the Promenade Dora Bruder that is named after her. If one sees Modiano's work from the perspective of making visible (phantos) rather than making coherent (logikos), if we see him as someone who uses very loosely the notion of a whodunit as a mnemonic, one recognizes that the book is in a manifold sense the opposite of the self-contained. One finds the narrators, Paris and history are in a state of flux and that out of the narrator's precarious sense of himself comes the precarity of history and memory. At one moment in The Search Warrant, the narrator recalls when he was eighteen a fallout with his father where they both ended up getting taken off by the police : "...I was surprised that, after all he had been through [as a Jewish man constantly in danger from the police] my father should not have offered the slightest objection to my being taken away in a Black Maria." How is it that the son born at the end of the war can remember more vividly the dangers of those years than the father? This latter event may have been taking place during those dull and ostensibly dull post-war years, but it is as though such an uneventful period for white French lives contains within it for Modiano a turbulent subterranean terror. Trying to disentangle the modes of memory as Ricoeur describes them isn't an academic exercise but an existential one. As GD Dess says "Modiano's protagonists exist in a world of perpetual existential emergency in which they are desperate to recapture a state of equilibrium within themselves." (Los Angeles Review of Books) When Kundera brilliantly breaks down topographical history in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he does so with the confidence of the outside observer, no matter if it was the oppression of Communism that led to him living in France. Here he describes a character's life in Prague, noting that Tamina was born in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Her mother was born on a street named Marshal Foch; Tamina's childhood home was on Stalin Avenue and later Vinohrady Avenue. " And all the time it was the same street; they just kept changing its name, trying to lobotomise it." Such changes were not so apparent in Paris but, nevertheless, Modiano's characters see everywhere around them the hinted horrors of topographical turmoil. Phantoms keep threatening to rise from their graves, out of the very dunghill that Modiano believes he was been born into and in which others have been buried. A detective solves a murder; a Modiano narrator hints at the many who have been killed, aware that no Poiret or Miss Marple can solve so many mysteries and enigmas simultaneously. Modiano's significance rests in wondering what such an attempt might look like.
© Tony McKibbin