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When French novelist, Patrick Modiano, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, the context was typical of earlier prizewinners. Few of his works had been translated into English; hence, he was largely unknown in the United States. There was a mad scramble to bring out his books in English translations, though his novels had been translated into thirty other languages. American publishers, once again, have had to play catch-up, and English-language readers are the last to enjoy his works. As I suggested above, there’s nothing new here at all except our continued ethnocentrism. The most recent translation, of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood, is actually of a very recent work, first published in France in 2014, the year Modiano won the award.
The title is a reference to a note and a hand-drawn map that was given to the main character, Jean Daragane, years ago in 1952, when he was five or six years old—in order that he wouldn’t get lost. Since the novel concludes in 2012, sixty years are covered, introducing the problem of memory, triggered during that final date by a phone call. It’s a strange opening to the novel. Daragane, a successful writer, receives a phone call and we are told that his phone has not rung for many months. There’s a hesitation to answer the call, so he lets it ring many times. What ensues is equally strange.
A man who identifies himself as Gilles Ottolini (whom Daragane does not know) says he wants to meet with him because he has found the writer’s address book and he wants to return it. They agree to meet in a café the following day, but when Daragane arrives, he is met by two people: the man who called and a young woman named Chantal Grippy. Ottolini says that he couldn’t resist looking at the address book and wants to ask Daragane about a name written down there. Ottolini also professes to be a writer, or at least a journalist, and wants to know something about Guy Torstel, whose name he discovered in the address book. Ottolini, who has read all of Daragane’s novels, reminds the writer that that was the name of one of his characters in a novel published long ago.
Daragane says that he often writes down interesting names precisely so that he can use them in his novels. That response provokes Ottolini to ask if that is so, why is there an actual phone number after the name? It’s obvious that something is amiss. The writer finesses a response, and the three of them go their separate directions. But shortly, Ottolini lets the writer know that he has a folder that he wants to give him, but he’s going to be away for a few days so he will get it to him later. Daragane wonders if he’s being set up by two blackmailers. This possibility is even more likely when Chantal visits him separately and leaves a folder of Xeroxed information for him.
The folder has names and passport photos of a child, and one of those names—of a woman named Annie Astrand—conjures up repressed memories of the past. This is when things get quite interesting. Slowly details from his past are remembered, provoked by documents from the time, and then remembered, and we begin to understand something about the way that Daragane (and possibly Modiano) constructs his novels. Annie Astrand became a kind of nanny for Daragane when he was quite young and then, years later, when the writer wrote his first novel, Le Noir de l’été, because he had lost touch with her, he incorporated a scene into the novel involving the two of them. He assumed that if she heard about his novel and read it, she would get it touch with him, i.e., that she was just as eager to make contact with him as he was with her. Fifteen or more years had passed since Annie took care of him, so he was a young man when he wrote the novel and she was in her thirties.
The unfolding of the past in So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood is one of the most remarkable accounts of sleuthing, of unburying painful events from the past, that I can ever remember reading. Daragane talks to other people from the years of his childhood. Annie Astrand turns out to be a mysterious character with a hidden past—among other things, she has spent time in prison. Furthermore, after the two of them were reunited and briefly involved in a relationship, she disappeared a second time, abandoning him as he did the first time. Or is that what happened? There’s the possibility that she was murdered and, for certain, there was the murder of another female.
You’ll have to figure it out for yourself. Thus loss (or being lost) resonates on multiple layers in this puzzling but deeply satisfying novel. Observing Daragane unlock his past probes a fascinating question, “Are you certain you want to do that?” The translation by Euan Cameron is superb.
Patrick Modiano: So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood
Translated by Euan Cameron
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 155 pp., $24