A beguiling children’s story—well, after a fashion, anyway—by the latest winner of the Nobel Prize in literature (Suspended Sentences, 2014, etc.).
Catherine Certitude—the French rings with the rounded “u,” bespeaking confidence and joie de vivre—is a 40-something grown-up as the story opens, the owner of a dance studio in New York who, in a moment of daydreaming wistfulness, looks back on her odd life. “We’re nobody special,” she says, “just New Yorkers, like so many others.” Very well: but why did the erstwhile resident of the 10th Arrondissement leave the comforting shadow of the Gare du Nord for Greenwich Village? Chalk that up to Papa, master of the carefully weighed shipment and the carefully measured advantage. What was it that Papa did in that big warehouse with the never forthcoming Mister Casterade, “The Pill,” as Papa called him? Papa owes Casterade, we learn, who reminds him, loudly, “Georges, you should remember that your real friends are the ones who save you from the clutches of the law.” The implication is that Papa, who says only that he is in “the package business,” is doing something he ought not to be doing, which might explain the family’s hasty departure. But, as ever with a Modiano story, other, darker possibilities always lurk at the edges of the story. The superficiality of Catherine’s understanding is hinted at by the great illustrator Sempé’s drawings, which have a carefree, untroubled quality even in those moments when they admit shadows. Whatever the case, Modiano, an heir of existentialism who lacks the pessimism of his forerunners, serves up something of a happy ending even as the mystery comes to embrace Catherine’s cloistered world of dance. At least, on leaving the story, we’re treated to the happy vision of Papa cutting another deal that’s shady enough to make Mama want to split....
Not for every child, and, indeed, not for every adult. It’s not exactly as if Dostoyevsky had turned to writing Mother Goose rhymes, but the darkness is there—and so is the brilliance.