The workings of the mind are mysterious and our memory isn’t always very reliable, especially about childhood. Some people recall their early years vividly and in great detail, while others seem to remember hardly anything. Moreover, the bits and pieces that have lasted in our minds for many years often turn out to be shockingly incomplete, blurred or even alienated past the recognition of others who were present too. Some memories are so painful that they are downright repressed: access denied until… This is the experience that an ageing novelist makes in So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood by Patrick Modiano, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2014. When a man steps into his life to return his lost address book, he rouses the ghosts of childhood asking after a person whose long outdated number is in it.
Patrick Modiano was born in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, in July 1945. His mother being an actress often on tour, he passed his early years in the care of his maternal grandparents who brought him up speaking Flemsh. Soon after high school he turned to writing and published his first work, an article for the magazine Le Crapouillot, in 1966. The following year he made his debut as a novelist with La Place de l'Étoile which earned him national as well as international awards. A great number of novels followed, most notable among them Ring Roads (Les Boulevards de ceinture: 1972), Missing Person (Rue des Boutiques obscures: 1978), Dora Bruder (1997; also translated as The Search Warrant: Dora Bruder), Pedigree (Un pedigree: 2005), and In the Café of Lost Youth (Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue: 2007). In 2014 Patrick Modiano was awarded the 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”. The author’s latest published work is So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood (Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier: 2014). Patrick Modiano lives in Paris, France.
A phone call that the ageing novelist Jean Daragane receives in his apartment in Paris on an unusually hot afternoon in September opens the story of So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood. The man on the phone found the writer’s address book and offers to take it directly to him since he is nearby, but there’s something in the man’s voice that makes Daragane feel uncomfortable about him. Nonetheless he agrees to meet him in a café the next day. The obscure stranger in his forties arrives in the company of an enigmatic woman dressed all in black and introduces himself as Gilles Ottolini. After handing the address book to Daragane he asks him about a person whose name and phone number he found in it, a certain Guy Torstel. The name doesn’t ring a bell with the author, though. Only then Ottolini reveals that he is gathering information about an old affair from the local news in which Guy Torstel was somehow involved and about which he wants to write an article. Daragane can’t help him. Already the next morning Ottolini calls the author again, asks him to meet him after his return from a business trip and reminds him that he used the name Guy Torstel in his first novel. It’s no use. He doesn’t remember the man. Later the same day Daragane receives another phone call, this time from Ottolini’s friend who asks him to come to her apartment. She gives him the material that her friend compiled doing research for a book which he hopes Daragane will help him to write. Reading the file, Daragane is pushed back into his own childhood in the early 1950s and gradually he realises that something happened to him at the time that he needs to remember…
In his third-person novella So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood the author uses his own tragic experience of having had a mother who was mostly absent and left him in the care of others to create an entirely credible protagonist who passed almost his whole life pushing away his past. When Gilles Ottoloni appears, Jean Daragane has reached a state of complete emotional detachment from everything – his childhood, his books, human relations, and life altogether. Like in reality something as unimportant as a long forgotten name in his address book suffices, though, to bring back the ghosts of his past and to urge him to investigate his own childhood almost as if it were that of a stranger. Through incoherent flashbacks, extracts from police files and the protagonist's own enquiries Patrick Modiano unveils gradually and with great skill the disturbing truth that made Daragane forget everything that was and without regret. However, retrieving his past doesn't make it any more real to him. I read the book in its original French version and found it easy to follow because the language is unpretentious, clear and precise. The slim volume is also a quick read. I enjoyed it immensely.
When I picked So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood by Patrick Modiano, I wasn't quite sure if I would like it because the works of Nobel Prize laureates aren't necessarily very accessible or at least good quality reads. Besides, I had never heard of the author before October 2014. Luckily, I didn't allow my doubts to keep me from reading one of his books! It was a good experience and I'm sure that this novella won't remain his only work in my library. And it goes without saying that I highly recommend this one for reading.
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