“I am nothing.” There’s Modiano (Honeymoon, 2014, etc.), recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in literature, in a nutshell—making this 1978 novel a fine introduction to his work.
Originally published as Rue de Boutiques Obscures, or “street of dark shops,” with the sense of obscurity as in mystery behind the darkness, Modiano’s book works a fruitful premise: in the mid-1960s, a French detective sets out on a quest into his own past, which ends in the preceding decade. At some point before then, it seems, he’d suffered an accident that led to amnesia. Now, his boss has given him a clue of what lies behind the curtain of memory, but what, in those dusty file folders and envelopes and fading photographs, will the man now called Guy Roland find? Things get strange, and fast: he may have once been a Jew from Greece caught up in a bohemian set in the Paris of the Nazi Occupation; he mixed, it seems, with Hollywood actors and Russian émigrés. Or was he a diplomat for a South American nation, an international traveler named McEvoy? It’s enough to make a person’s head spin, but fortunately Roland has a few artifacts to go on, keepsakes and magazines and such, as well as a few tactile clues: “She was wearing some highly pungent perfume which reminded me of something. But what?” Modiano’s unaffected exposition opens onto murky depths; soon enough, as Roland begins sifting through the detritus of memory, we’re left to wonder whether he’s recounting authentic experiences or just groping in the dark. What’s clear is that Roland may have good reason indeed to want to forget, making him a perfect stand-in for all France during a time when the Occupation was something all too many people were desperate to forget—and for everyone else to forget as well.
Beautifully written and perfectly noirish, as though the world were being seen through a haze of Gauloise smoke. Be warned, though: after reading this, a sensitive soul may well seize up the next time a stranger waves.