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Missing Person, Patrick Modiano, David R Godine, 2005, 168 pp (translated from the French by Daniel Weissbort, originally published in French, 1978, by Editions Gaillimard as Rue de Boutiques Obscures)
Patrick Modiano was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2014. He was virtually unheard of in the United States before then. According to our stated purpose to read only Nobel Prize winning authors or Pulitzer Prize winning novels, my Literary Snobs reading group of two members chose Missing Person, said by several reviewers to be one of his best novels.
The author was born in July, 1945, less than a year after the liberation of Paris from German occupation. His mother was a Flemish actress who worked for a Nazi film studio in Paris during the war. His father was a Sephardic Jew who worked the black market and may have been a collaborator for his own protection. These parents neglected their two sons, leaving them with relatives much of the time. The Occupation became Modiano's obsession and most of his books are concerned with it.
Missing Person is an atmospheric mystery about Guy Roland, a man who lost his memory during the war and is searching to find out who he was. He had been given a job 10 years earlier by a successful private investigator in Paris, who took Guy under his wing. Knowing about the man's amnesia, the detective procured for him a new identity complete with papers and trained Guy as his assistant.
Now this mentor has retired and moved to Nice, but he left the keys to his office to Guy. The novel is the story of Guy's search for his past. He makes use of the voluminous records of persons and incidents in that office, follows up on leads, and gradually begins to piece together who he may have been.
Guy moves around from place to place both in Paris and it outskirts, meeting various individuals who keep giving him collections of photos and other memorabilia. I became more and more intrigued with his journeys into shadowy years lost in the general Parisian amnesia about that German occupation.
I already knew from reading Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, that it was a shameful time in Paris. So many collaborated with the Germans, for protection and sometimes simply for enough to eat, but afterwards the collaborators were hated by those who formed the Resistance to the Nazis. Simone de Beauvoir and her lover, Jean Paul Sartre, were part of the Resistance. A decade later, which is when this novel takes place, many just chose to forget all of it.
The writing is an expression of the disjointed fragments of Guy's memories. It has a poetic noir feel. Guy, having nothing to lose, is relentless and unafraid though naturally swinging between hopelessness and exhilaration as certain details begin to come back to him.
Perhaps Guy's experience would not mean much to readers who never experienced those strange years in France, but the novel won the Prix Goncourt, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer, the year it was published. I was riveted and not even disappointed by the ambiguous ending. It is all about the search.
(Missing Person is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)