Brooding, philosophically rich novel by Modiano (Missing Person, 2014, etc.), recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature.
Jean B. is a filmmaker—a documentary filmmaker, more precisely, and one constantly on the go from continent to continent and culture to culture: “I was just back from Oceania,” he recalls, “and I was to leave for Rio de Janeiro a few days later.” This tour finds him on a short layover in Milan while traveling to Paris by train—and everyone knows that you don’t go to Milan in August, when everyone is gone or hiding from the heat. Apparently the heat is too much, or something is too much in any event, for another traveler, Ingrid Theysen, who, Jean learns, killed herself a couple of days earlier after drinking just the same drink he has now ordered. It’s not the drink’s fault but instead the weight of the whole oppressive 20th century: the war, the occupation, the whole bit. The thing is, Jean knew Ingrid two decades earlier, when she’d brightly said, “We’ll pretend to be dead.” Why should Ingrid want to do so? What secret did she hold—and how about Rigaud, the fellow whom she’d run off with during the war, leaving it to her poor parents to place advertisements begging for information about their missing daughter? Modiano is in high mystery mode as Jean sets out to retrace Ingrid’s steps past “groups of German soldiers and French policemen,” hugging the walls while trying to avoid being seen. And why? Well, there’s the nub, and Modiano takes his time solving the puzzle and then not filling in every blank—not least the one that might tell us why Jean should be interested in the first place. Along the way, he coolly evokes the black-and-white grittiness of France in the early 1960s, when so many were trying to forget the events of 20 years before, and leaves much of the rest to the reader’s imagination.
Trademark Modiano, brittle and elegant, with more questions than answers.