The Short Version: The war is over and Guy Roland has been working as a private detective – but that is not his real name. Guy does not know who he was and he sets out, one last case before closing up shop, to figure out his past. But can he really be any of these people – or could he be?
The Review: Few, if any, of us knew about Mr. Modiano before the Nobel Prize announcement this year. Popular, but not too popular, in France, he’s barely registered here in the states. Startling, really, considering how prolific he is (a whole bunch of novels, children’s books, screenplays) – but, as has now been widely repeated, most of his stuff that had been translated into English was out of print when he won the Nobel. I ended up tracking down a few copies at Strand, mainly in the immediate interest of reading it for a forthcoming episode of So Many Damn Books, but it’s been pretty much them and Word who’ve had any copies. I’m told that his translated works were rushed back into print after the sudden demand.
But is he worth rushing out to read? Acknowledging the ridiculousness of passing judgement after reading only one, I’m going to say that, no, you don’t have to rush out. Missing Person will not change your life. It may not even really register all that much, although certain audiences will find it passes the time enjoyably. I’m curious to read more of his work, sometime in the future, but this book does not ring out as anything earth-shattering.
It’s, on the surface, a pretty simple noir story: a man who cannot remember who he is tries to find himself. He ends up hiring a PI, who in turn hires him and gives him a new identity – but that isn’t enough. After the PI retires, he sets to work again to find himself and comes across all sorts of hazy, half-remembered moments and people who seem to half-remember him. There’s certainly something to the atmosphere that Modiano creates here: you can practically smell the cigarette smoke, hear the crunch of feet down a quiet sidewalk. It’s a novel written in black & white, starring actors and actresses long dead. All this is to say, it evokes a time and place powerfully – that time and place, of course, being post-war France. While we have no shortage of stories in the literary world that deal with some of the other post-war groups (the Jews, of course, but also post-war Germany and Russia and Britain have their fair share), I feel like post-war France is less heavily trafficked, at least to my understanding. It was interesting to go there.
It was also interesting to, almost immediately, get that sense of Frenchness about the writing. I’ve always been proud of my French heritage (much to the [now that I think about it, very odd] mockery of my grade school chums) and took to Camus and Sartre with great interest as I started to develop a cogent philosophy towards the world. Those two authors, titans of French literature that they are and early in my reading as they were, color Modiano for me a little bit – but I’m not so sure that that’s inaccurate. There’s a great existential question being asked in this book: the question of self. I think Camus and Sartre would enjoy the way he grapples with it.
He does so by placing this cipher of a main character into positions where he could, possibly, be this person or that person. And to watch him take on these roles, not out of malice or trickery but out of genuine hope that this is the right one… it’s a fascinating meditation of humanity, on self, on existence. He goes through so many false starts that when (SPOILERS) he does apparently discover the man he was, the reader is left wondering. Could this one just fit easier? Could everyone else be mistaken? Or is this really it? And would it necessarily matter either way? Big questions and Modiano doesn’t give any easy answers. I liked that.
What I didn’t like is that the book… it felt light. It felt ethereal to the point of my not really enjoying it, per se. Or, no, I enjoyed it for its particular pleasures but I also wasn’t terribly entertained by it. It was easy to slip out of, partially due to the short chapters and all-over short length and partially due to the hazy nature of the prose and the story. It is, in many ways, more of a philosophical exercise than a novel – and that wasn’t what I expected. To give Mr. Modiano credit (and this is why I’m prepared, someday, to read another of his works), that’s on me – that’s not his fault.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. He’s a talented writer for sure but even the interesting philosophical questions of self didn’t engage me like I wanted them to. I’m, again, pretty sure that’s my own failing and not the authors – but his chilly, sparse storytelling will work really well for one type of audience and not-so-great for every other. Talk amongst yourselves to see which one you are – and remember that a prize like the Nobel is meant to acknowledge the entire body of an author’s work. This, as a starting point, may seem on the weaker side – but it is only one book. I’m curious to see others, if not rushing out to do so.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5.