Suspended Sen­tences: Three Novel­las by Pa­trick Mo­di­ano

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Priyanka Ku­mar

Three Novel­las by Pa­trick Mo­di­ano, Yale Uni­ver­sity Press, 232 pages Find­ing a trans­la­tion of a for­eign-lan­guage book can re­quire dogged­ness on the part of Amer­i­can read­ers. Even the books of No­bel Prize-win­ner Pa­trick Mo­di­ano were, un­til re­cently, rare com­modi­ties here. Last Oc­to­ber, af­ter ex­haust­ing sev­eral sources, I or­dered one of Mo­di­ano’s bet­ter-known books,

Miss­ing Per­son , through an Ama­zon ven­dor. Two and a half weeks later, I was dis­ap­pointed to get an email from the ven­dor that said, “We are in­form­ing you re­gard­ing your pack­age we shipped to you but, un­for­tu­nately the car­rier had brought it back to us. The item in­side the pack­age was badly wa­ter dam­aged dur­ing tran­sit. It was the last one we had. We sin­cerely apol­o­gize for the in­con­ve­nience.” Had the ven­dor found a higher bid­der on eBay, or did the book re­ally did get wa­ter­logged on its way to the New Mex­ico desert?

In any case, I wel­comed the re­cent pub­li­ca­tion of Suspended Sen­tences , an English trans­la­tion of three novel­las by Mo­di­ano. Bound to­gether for the first time, all three novel­las ex­plore the themes of mem­ory and iden­tity. It might be in­ter­est­ing to bear in mind that Mo­di­ano once said, “I have the im­pres­sion of writ­ing the same book for 45 years.” In the first novella, Af­ter­im­age , a writer sets out to write a bi­og­ra­phy of a pho­tog­ra­pher whom he met at nine­teen and who has since dis­ap­peared. At one point, the writer-nar­ra­tor isn’t sure if he him­self isn’t the pho­tog­ra­pher, Jansen, a man 30 years his se­nior. “Don’t let it faze you, kid,” Jansen had ad­vised the nar­ra­tor in a café — as he might well ad­vise the reader — “I’ve fallen into my share of black holes too.”

Thirty years later, the nar­ra­tor finds him­self echo­ing what he’d once per­ceived as Jansen’s in­ex­pli­ca­ble be­hav­ior: not an­swer­ing the phone and dis­ap­pear­ing one June evening with a “phantom dog.” Mo­di­ano ex­cels at evok­ing moods and times that can­not be re­trieved in any way but through the power of art. Jansen once went to an apart­ment to de­liver a mes­sage to the rel­a­tives and girl­friend of a friend from the Drancy in­tern­ment camp, but he found no one there. “And so, feel­ing help­less, he’d taken those pho­tos so that the place where his friend and his friend’s loved ones had lived would at least be pre­served on film.” Mo­di­ano’s writ­ing can be com­pared to a se­ries of pho­to­graphs, at once de­tailed and at­mo­spheric, that evoke the com­plex­i­ties within Paris dur­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion there.

The por­trai­ture of Paris, of criss­cross­ing it on foot, is one of the most strik­ing fea­tures of Mo­di­ano’s work. A vivid scene of young peo­ple hang­ing out in a city park trig­gered images of my three-week stay there a decade ago, when I’d walked to the Lux­em­bourg Gar­den al­most ev­ery day. What Amer­i­can tourists see (and want to see) is the ro­man­tic side of Paris. Dur­ing my stay, I be­came smit­ten with the Bi­b­lio­thèque na­tionale de France. From where I was stay­ing, a half-hour walk from the Lux­em­bourg Gar­den, it was a long bus ride to the na­tional li­brary. The bus took me along the out­skirts of Paris, through sec­tions that were com­pletely un­like the gar­dens, mu­se­ums, and boule­vards I’d sa­vored so far. I saw that Paris, like any other metropoli­tan city, has its mar­ginal ar­eas, its ugly sores.

In the wake of Jan­uary’s Paris at­tacks, there has fi­nally been some re­port­ing about the mar­ginal Paris, about the deeper prob­lems that ail France, es­pe­cially the lack of in­te­gra­tion. Sev­eral Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties live in ban­lieues — sub­urbs, of­ten pop­u­lated by the work­ing class and by im­mi­grants — which are some­times de­scribed as ghet­tos and which re­call the marginal­iza­tion of parts of the African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. Still, walk­ing and public parks are charms that are open to all. At least one of the Kouachi broth­ers used to con­gre­gate with young Mus­lim men in Buttes-Chau­mont, a public park in Paris, and the po­lice re­ferred to th­ese men as the Buttes-Chau­mont group.

Walk­ing back and forth from the bus stop to the Bi­b­lio­thèque, it was easy to be­friend other young peo­ple — for in­stance, a young woman want­ing to prac­tice her English. We then met in cafés so we could talk more. Hav­ing ex­pe­ri­enced this, I was less sur­prised at the ease with which Guy, the nar­ra­tor

of Miss­ing Per­son , is able to ar­range con­ver­sa­tions with strangers who have some con­nec­tion to his past. More of­ten than not, he’s in­vited to their apart­ments. In such set­tings, he might find him­self sit­ting on a bed or an arm­chair while his host, whom he has met just hours ago, rem­i­nisces or shows him a box of pho­tos. In a pho­tog­ra­pher’s satiny apart­ment, Guy ob­serves, “I had walked over to the win­dow and was look­ing down at the rails of the Mont­martre fu­nic­u­lar, the gar­dens of the Sacré Coeur and, fur­ther off, the whole of Paris, with its lights, its roofs, its shad­ows. Denise Coudreuse and I had met one day in this maze of roads and boule­vards. Paths that cross, among those of thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple all over Paris, like count­less lit­tle balls on a gi­gan­tic, elec­tric bil­liard ta­ble, which oc­ca­sion­ally bump into each other. And noth­ing re­mained of this, not even the lu­mi­nous trail a fire­fly leaves be­hind it.”

French writ­ers are at lib­erty to give dom­i­nance to mood or a quiet yearn­ing in a way that’s not ac­cept­able in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can fic­tion — at least not in the kind pub­lished by main­stream houses. Rather than ar­rang­ing his ma­te­rial to suit any no­tion of plot, Mo­di­ano trusts the ef­fect of un­fold­ing layer upon layer of mem­ory: He puts the reader in the com­pany of what amounts to a close friend who is re­call­ing in­trigu­ing frag­ments from the past.

In the novella Suspended Sen­tences , a lit­tle boy, Pa­toche, and his brother live for a year with their mother’s friend An­nie. The boys wit­ness An­nie’s friend­ships with Lit­tle Hélène and two men. Most of this gang later ends up in pri­son for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, but the boys only ex­pe­ri­ence the glam­our of the friend­ships. They’re treated, for in­stance, to a bumper-car ride in Ver­sailles. The boys be­come fas­ci­nated with the un­usual colors — turquoise, very pale green — of the bumper cars. “The next time,” Lit­tle Hélène tells them, “I’ll take you to see the palace.”

When we saw the Palace of Ver­sailles, our French host lin­gered in the gar­dens, pho­tograph­ing their highly for­mal fea­tures. Mo­di­ano rightly sug­gests that os­ten­si­bly mi­nor de­tails (a bumper car, for in­stance) can grow into a per­sis­tent mem­ory. I still re­mem­ber how, that morn­ing, our French host stopped to get us almond crois­sants from “the best bak­ery in Paris.” We ate them on the train to Ver­sailles.

The end­ing of Suspended Sen­tences is qui­etly dev­as­tat­ing. It be­comes clear why Pa­toche’s search for the faces and places, in­clud­ing a garage he got to know dur­ing his year with An­nie, are im­por­tant to him as a young man. This story could have been writ­ten in many dif­fer­ent ways. In Mo­di­ano’s hands, that year’s charms are sum­moned up, with­out too many de­tails, and some­how we un­der­stand why Pa­toche, also a writer, wants to re­turn to that time, if only in his fic­tion.

Oc­ca­sion­ally a his­toric ref­er­ence — Churchill’s fu­neral, for ex­am­ple — pegs down the bil­low­ing sheets of mem­ory. An in­trigu­ing de­tail or place will stand out: an el­e­va­tor lined with red vel­vet, peo­ple dining “be­neath the arbor” of a small restau­rant, the pre­cise way the light falls in a café.

In Miss­ing Per­son , Guy tries to trace van­ished peo­ple in or­der to re­con­struct his past, which has van­ished as well. Guy walks the streets of Paris or stops at a night­club to look for a per­son who might be able to il­lu­mi­nate some strand from his past. One man of­fers Guy a red box of pho­to­graphs — he’s ea­ger to leave his past be­hind be­cause it’s “too sad” to think about. The head of the de­tec­tive agency Guy used to work for once said to him that the sand “keeps the traces of our foot­steps only a few mo­ments.” Later, Guy is vin­di­cated when this man writes a let­ter to him in which he tells him, “You were right to tell me that in life it is not the fu­ture which counts, but the past.” We don’t hear sen­ti­ments like this much any­more, and they point to one rea­son why Mo­di­ano’s work is valu­able. He jolts us out of the ev­ery­day­ness of the present and lights up the back al­leys of the past be­fore they’re dimmed for­ever.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.