Sunday, November 23, 2014

Patrick Modiano: "Missing Person"

When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel prize last month, I -- like most ordinary readers of English -- had never heard of him. His books were so obscure that immediately ran out, or maybe they hadn't even had them in stock. I was very curious to read this obscure French author, so I patiently waited until amazon shipped me a copy of Missing Person, with the Nobel-winner sticker affixed.

The narrator of Missing Person is a man with amnesia. He begins with the sentence "I am nothing," and painfully and slowly tries to reconstruct his identity by finding strangers who may have known him before his loss of memory. Obviously, the book is about a much broader sort of quest for memory and identity, indicated by the history of the narrator.

Paris geography is the underlying reality of the story. The narrator meets his previously unknown informants in cafes, apartments, churches, restaurants, and bars with completely specific names and addresses in the city. His recall of similar locations (or of old experiences at the same locations) becomes a set of clues to the specific events that caused the loss of his name and past, events that took place during the war in the 1940s. The unreality of his amnesiac life is built through all kinds of very specific details. Instead of places of memory -- lieux de mémoire as French philosopher Nora called them -- he seems to have places of no memory.

Yes, food and drink are part of his experience. In cafes, he drinks with the stranger/informants, and in restaurants he eats with them. In a restaurant in Porte de St-Cloud they eat galantine, wine, sweetbreads. In a cafe near Rue Chardon-Lagache he watches a taxi driver eat a pâté sandwich with beer. In one of several photo collections the strangers give him he sees Russian dinner parties from 1914. At the Bar-Restaurant de l'Île he has Baltic herring, mineral water, cucumber and a banana for dessert. The cafe "A la Marine" on the Quai d'Austerlitz has a "smell of lard in the air." He remembers, or almost remembers, once being with a little girl eating "green and pink ice cream." At a wine bar/grocery store he sees shelves with "exotic food products: teas, Turkish delight, rose-petal preserves, Baltic herring." (pages 8, 17, 26, 29, 92, 96, 123)

Even one of the photo collections comes in a cookie box labeled "Biscuits Le Febre Utile-Nantes." He seems to be partial to the liqueur Marie Brizard, but desperately tries to recall the name of a particular cocktail, thinking that if he only could remember, "it would awaken other memories, but how?" (p. 63, p. 109)

In particular, one of his informants is a "gastronomical columnist" who is "always obliged to eat." At their meeting the critic has to eat sweetbreads, fish bouillon, meat pies, salad, and a piece of fruit. He complains of having "just returned from the Golden Tripe competition ... I was one of the judges. We  had to swallow a hundred and seventy pieces of tripe over a period of one and a half days." And in the conversation, he does manage to offer some very good information that the narrator is seeking. (p. 50)

In a recovered memory, at last dredged up by all his contacts and travel with strangers, the narrator recalls the terrible experience that probably led to his forgetfulness. During a stay at a chateau near the Swiss border, he had spent quite a bit of time with a number of the people whose identities have emerged from his long series of interviews and researches into archives and other sources -- I won't spoil the ending completely by telling the rest. One part of the memory: "Gay Orlov made borscht for us every day." (p. 147)

Food is just one of the many types of details that build the fascinating atmosphere and suspense of this novel, but I find the choices really captivating, and I ponder what the very specific foods might mean. They aren't exactly typical French food, but provide a glimpse into the types of people that were emerging as the narrator's lost friends -- particularly as they were all from other places including Russia and South America.

I feel that the Nobel committee has presented me with a new and fascinating writer. I have also read the stories in the newly-published Modiano book Suspended Sentences, an exploration of many of the same themes of lost memory and identity.


Debra Eliotseats said...

So, I had not even heard the Nobel announcement...that is how far behind I am. Am checking this out now. Hope it's a Kindle option.

Pam said...

I haven't heard of it, but it sounds interesting and I'll check it out. Thanks for the good review!

~~louise~~ said...

Ditto for me to Mae, but it sounds deliciously intriguing. Thanks for sharing...