By Patrick Modiano
Published 1978 as “Rue des Boutiques Obscures”
English translation by Daniel Weissbort published in the UK 1980
Read Dec 2017
Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation”. (Nobel Prize website). Only some of his work has been translated from French and published in English, but Missing Person, for which he won France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, fortunately is an exception.
Guy Roland, our narrator, has lost his memory. For the past 8 years he has been employed as an investigator by C. M. Hutte who provided him with identity papers 10 years ago. As the book opens, we learn that Hutte is closing his business and retiring, although he’s keeping the lease on the office and all the contents—all the society catalogs and directories so useful to his business at that time (no Google search engines available then…). Roland and Hutte meet one last time as Hutte prepares to leave Paris. Roland indicates he will now investigate his own past. We learn, in passing, that Hutte too “had lost track of himself and a whole section of this life had been engulfed without leaving the slightest traces, the slightest connection that could still link him with the past.” But our attention is directed back to Guy Roland’s investigation of his own past.
The narrator leads us through his investigation as he follows a path of leads as he speaks with people who may have known him or people with which he may have interacted and follows up on reports he receives from a fellow investigator. Some of the people he speaks with give him physical items they have held for a potentially returning friend but with whom they have lost touch. Roland uses a few photographs he receives to spark discussion with some of the leads. Most of the people he meets do not recognize him, but this isn’t surprising as some twenty plus years have passed since they’ve last interacted with the person he once was, or they actually didn’t know the person he once was but rather only someone he once knew. One person does recognize him and is surprised that Roland neither recognizes him nor recalls their shared experiences. Roland now begins to recall pieces of the past, or at least thinks he does, and the text turns away from investigative reports to Roland to his recollections which lead to remembering a significant event after which his memory ceases. Clearly the event recalled could be one to trigger significant mental upheaval, but we don’t know if that’s the case or not.
Roland’s narration ends when he’s reached a dead-end with regard to a particular “witness” he’s pursued and as he plans to follow yet another path for information. We don’t know if he will successfully fully identify himself or fill in his lost memories. This ending separates the novel from a “standard” mystery. It’s not solved. The investigator can’t tell us the story that wraps it all up for his client or for the reader.
The concept of memory Is of much interest to many authors (Kazuo Ishiguro being one in particular) and to psychologists (noted Nobel Prize winner in economics Daniel Kahneman being a prime example). Kahneman discusses the “remembering self” (what we recall) and the “experiencing self” (what is happening) and notes that “what people want is more closely associated with the remembering self. It’s — they want to have good memories. They want to have good opinions of themselves. They want to have a good story about their life.” (from an interview by Kristin Tippett : https://onbeing.org/programs/daniel-kahneman-why-we-contradict-ourselves-and-confound-each-other-oct2017/).
What is Guy Roland looking for? The book begins with the sentence “I am nothing.”. Is Roland seeking to know who he was? To know that he was something? To know what others thought of him? To know that others remember him? That Roland’s client is himself also makes this novel a “nonstandard” mystery. However, it’s not unusual for the investigator’s client to be unclear about what they are really seeking. That Roland continues his investigation suggests he hasn’t yet found what he’s seeking. His final comment “do not our lives dissolve into the evening as quickly as this grief of childhood?” leaves us with no answers and only questions about Roland’s search and also about what we are looking for and what we memories we want ourselves.