LIKE the novels of his own contemporaries — American writer Paul Auster’s — City of Glass — or Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s — The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — both of which open with mysterious phone calls, Patrick Modiano’s novella ‘So you don’t get lost in the neighbourhood’ translated from the French ‘Pour que tu ne perdes pas dans le quartier’ starts the story:
«Presque rien. Comme une piqûre d’insecte qui vous semble d’abord très légère. Du moins c’est ce que vous vous dites à voix basse pour vous rassurer. Le téléphone avait sonné vers quatre — heures de l’après-midi chez Jean Daragane, dans la chambre qu’il appelait le «—bureau—»…»
(Almost nothing. Like an insect bite that initially strikes you as very slight. At least that is what you tell yourself in a low voice so as to reassure yourself. The telephone had rung at about four o’clock in the afternoon at Jean Daragane’s home, in the room that he called the ‘desk’…)
Thus, this novella ‘So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighbourhood’ opens with a quintessentially postmodern situation: an aging and isolated novelist Jean Daragane who receives a phone call at four o’clock in the afternoon from a man saying he found the writer’s address book. Modiano, though, plays the plot more realistically than either Auster or Murakami, but that does not mean the conundrums are any less complex or postmodern.
Actually after getting almost habituated to loneliness he did not expect any kind of interference. While dozing on the sofa at the far end, shielded from the sunlight, these ringing sounds which he had been unaccustomed to hearing for a long time went on continuously. So he lost his temper. But immediately after ringing off without waiting for the other person to reply, he realises his misbehaviour, as indicated in Modiano’s thoughts:
«Il regretta aussitôt de s’être comporté de manière aussi brutale, mais il mit cela au compte de la chaleur qui pesait sur Paris depuis quelques jours, une chaleur inhabituelle pour le mois de septembre. Elle renforçait sa solitude. Elle l’obligeait à — rester enfermé dans cette chambre jusqu’au coucher du soleil. Et puis, le téléphone n’avait plus sonné depuis des mois. Et le portable, sur son bureau, il se demanda quand il l’avait utilisé pour la dernière fois. Il savait à peine s’en servir et se trompait souvent quand il appuyait sur les touches.»
(He immediately regretted behaving in such an abrupt way, but he put it down to the heat that had been hanging over Paris for several days, a heat that was unusual for September. It emphasised his loneliness. It forced him to remain shut up in this room until sunset. And then the telephone had not rung for months. As for the mobile, on his desk, he wondered when he had last used it. He scarcely knew how it operated and frequently made mistakes when he pressed the buttons.)
Unexpected as that phone call from the stranger is, the curiosity of that unknown person triggers off the protagonist Jean Daragane’s memories of the past. If the stranger had not phoned, he would have totally forgotten the loss of this address book. He tried to recall the names that were in it. The week before, he had even wanted to start a new one and had begun to compose a list on a sheet of white paper. After a short while, he had torn it up. None of the names belonged to people who had mattered in his life: he had never needed to write down their addresses and phone numbers. He knew them by heart. In this note book there was nothing but contacts of a so-called ‘professional nature’, a few supposedly useful addresses, no more than about thirty names. And among them several that should have been deleted, because they were no longer current. The only thing that had bothered him about the loss of this notebook was that he had written his own name in it, as well as his address.
However, such untoward interference has made him get out of his silent and quiet life. Thanks to the loss of his address book, he has to meet people like Gilles Ottolini and Chantal Grippay who for their own interest have led Daragane to such a state where he has to face his past memories and revisit sometimes the places he trod in his childhood. Even he has to reread his first novel Le Noir de l’été and re-discover the characters thereof as he has almost forgotten the names of some characters like Guy Torstel, Perrin de Lara, Bugnand, Roger Vincent, Annie Astrand and some places like Le Tremblay, Charbonnières…Writing such a novel, for him, was also a way of beaming a searchlight or sending out coded signals to certain people with whom he had lost touch. It was enough to scatter their names at random through the pages and wait until they finally produced news of themselves. But in the case of Annie Astrand, he had not mentioned her name and he had endeavoured to cover his tracks. She would not be able to recognise herself in any of his characters. He had never understood why anyone should want to put someone who had mattered to them into a novel. Once that person had drifted into a novel in much the same way as one might walk through a mirror, he escaped from you forever. He had never existed in real life. He had been reduced to nothingness…everything had happened gently, a lost address book, voices on the telephone, a meeting in a café…Yes, it all had the lightness of a dream. And the pages of the dossier had also given him a strange sensation: because of certain names, and especially that of Annie Astrand, and all those words piled on top of each other without double-spacing, he suddenly found himself confronted with certain details of his life, but reflected in a distorting mirror, with those disjointed details that pursue you on sights when you have a temperature. The more he read this dossier the more the memories of those places and individuals started coming back again from the past. When he was requested by Gilles Ottolini to meet him at 42 rue de l’Arcade, this place reminded him of his parents:
«Il ne s’était pas trouvé dans ces parages depuis une éternité. Il se souvint que sa mère jouait dans un théâtre des environs et que son père occupait un bureau tout au bout de la rue, à gauche, au 73, boulevard Haussmann. Il fut étonné d’avoir encore en mémoire le numéro — 73. Mais tout ce passé était devenu si translucide avec le temps… une buée qui se dissipait sous le soleil… Au cours des cinquante dernières années, il était souvent passé par là, et même dans son enfance, quand sa mère l’emmenait, un peu plus haut sur le boulevard, au grand magasin du Printemps. Mais ce soir, cette ville lui semblait étrangère. Il avait largué toutes les amarres qui pouvaient encore le relier à elle, ou bien c’est elle qui l’avait rejeté.»
(He had not been in this vicinity for ages. He remembered that his mother once acted in a nearby theatre and that his father had an office at the very end of the street, on the left, at 73 boulevard Haussmann. He was astonished that he still remembered the number 73. But all this past had become so translucent with time…a mist that dissipated in the sunlight… Over the course of the past fifty years, he had often come here, and had done so even during his childhood, when his mother took him to Printemps, the large department store a little further up the boulevard. But this evening, his city seemed unfamiliar to him. He had cast off all the bonds that could still bind him to her, but perhaps it was she who had rejected him.)
Then it is to be observed that in crossing the Pont des Arts and the courtyard of the Louvre at the arcades of the Palais-Royal Daragane was following a route that was familiar to him from his childhood. He walked along what is known as the Louvre des Antiquaires and he remembered the Christmas windows of the Grands Magasins du Louvre in the same spot. And now that he had paused in the middle of the Galerie de Beaujolais, as though he had reached the end of his walk, another memory came back to him. It had been buried away for so long and so deeply, far from the light of day, that it seemed new. He wondered whether it really was a memory or whether it was a snapshot that no longer belonged to the past, having detached itself like a free electron: his mother and he — one of the rare occasions when they were together — entering a shop that sold books and paintings, and his mother speaking to two men, one of whom was sitting at a desk at the back of the shop while the other stood with his elbow propped against a marble fireplace. Guy Torstel. Jacques Perrin de Lara. Frozen there, until the end of time.
Gradually his other past memories kept cropping up one after another while meeting some individuals and visiting some places of his childhood. He kept repeating a name to himself and could not get it out of his head. Le Tremblay. A racecourse in the south-eastern suburbs where Chantal and Paul had taken him on one Sunday in the autumn. Paul had exchanged a few words in the grandstand with a man who was older than them and he had explained to them that this was someone he occasionally used to meet at the casino at Forges-les-Eaux and that he too used to attend race meetings. The man had offered to drive them back to Paris in his car. It was real autumn weather. In the autumn he had begun the novel, Le Noir de l’été, the same autumn when he had gone to le Tremblay on one Sunday. He remembered he had written the first page of the novel that Sunday evening in the room in square du Graisivaudan. A few hours earlier, when Torstel had been driving along the banks of the Marne and then crossed the Vincennes woods, he really had felt affected by autumn: the mist, the smell of damp earth, the paths strewn with dead leaves. The word ‘Tremblay’ would always be associated for him now with a particular autumn.
These words — Le Tremblay, Chantal, Square du Graisivaudan — had travelled a long way. An insect bite, very slight to begin with, and it causes you an increasingly sharp pain, and very soon a feeling of being torn apart. The present and the past merge together, and that seems quite natural because they were only separated by a cellophane partition. An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane. He could not be sure of the year, but he was very young, in a room as small as this one with a girl called Chantal — a fairly common name at the time. The husband of this Chantal, one Paul, and other friend of theirs had set off as they always did on Saturdays to gamble in the casinos on the outskirts of Paris: Enghien,Forges-les-Eaux… and they came back the following day with a bit of money. He, Daragane, and this chantal, spent the entire night together in this room in suare du Graisivaudan until the others returned. Paul, the husband, also used to go to race meetings. A gambler.
His meeting with Torstel at the racecourse last autumn that had jogged his memory of her. Torstel had talked about the house at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt. When Torstel had said: ‘I can’t remember what this place on the outskirts of Paris was’, and also: ‘The child, it was you, I imagine’, he, Daragane, had not wished to answer. He had not thought about Annie Astrand, or about Saint-Leu-la-Forêt for a long time. However, this encounter had suddenly revived memories that, without his being fully aware of them, he was careful not to awaken. And now, he had done so. They were very tenacious, these memories.
No, Daragane would not return to places for the sake of recognising them. He was too frightened that the grief, buried away until then, might unfurl through the years like a Bickford fuse. In the end, everybody forgets the details of their lives that embarrass them or are too painful. They just lie back and allow themselves to float along calmly over the deep waters, with their eyes closed.
In Daragane’s infantile memories saturated with deprivation of parental love and affection there are some important individuals, having played an important role in his childhood, who start coming to play behind the scenes. Thanks to Guy Torstel, he had found again Annie Astrand who frequently used to return very late to the house at Saint-Leu-la Forêt,and he, Daragane, had sometimes found he could not get to sleep until she returned. What a comfort to hear the sound of her car’s tyres on the gravel and the engine which was about to be switched off. He wondered whether she was the same person whom he had known, as a child, at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt. And as for himself, who was he? Forty years later, when the enlargement of the passport photograph would fall into his hands, he would no longer even know whether that child was himself. In those days, Daragane slept well — the sleep of childhood — except on the evenings when he waited for Annie to return. He would often hear noisy voices and doors banging in the night, but he fell asleep again immediately. And anyway, the house was enormous, a building made up of several different parts, and so he never knew who was there. Leaving to go to school in the morning, he used to notice a number of cars parked in front of the porch. In the part of the building where his bedroom was, there was also Annie’s, on the other side of the corridor. This is the room from where in his semi-slumber he used to hear voices and shrieks of laughter very late into the night. She was accompanied by Colette Laurent. But, often, the voice and the laugh were those of a man whom he had never met in the house during the daytime. This man must have left very early in the morning, long before school. Someone who would remain a stranger until the end of time.
Another more detailed memory came back to him, but effortlessly so, like the words of songs learnt in one’s childhood and that one is able to recite throughout all one’s life without understanding them. Her two bedroom windows gave onto the street which was not the same as it is today, a street shaded by trees. On the white wall, opposite her bed, a coloured engraving depicted flowers, fruits and leaves, and underneath it was written in large letters: BELLADONNA AND HENBANE. Much later, he discovered that these were poisonous plants, but at the time what interested him was deciphering the letters: belladonna and henbane, the first words he had learnt to read. Another engraving between the two windows: a black bull, its head lowered, which gazed at him with a melancholy expression. The engraving had as its caption: BULL FROM THE POLDERS OF HOLSTEIN, in smaller letters than belladonna and henbane, and harder to read. But he had managed to do so after a few days, and he had even been able to copy out all these words on a pad of notepaper that Annie had given him.
Being obsessed with the memory of having had Annie’s company he went through the memory of a trauma even after fifteen years as he was walking along the same central reservation, in winter, behind the fairground stalls that had been put up for Christmas and he could not take his eyes off those brightly lit neon signs that called out to him and the increasingly faint Morse code signals. It was as though they were gleaming for the last time and still belonged to the summer when he had found himself in the neighbourhood with Annie. How long had they been there? For months, for years, like those dreams that have seemed so long to you and which you realise, on waking up suddenly, have only lasted a few seconds?
Even in his solitude, Daragane had never felt so light-hearted, with strange moments of elation either in the morning or the evening, as though everything were still possible and, as the title of the old film has it, adventure lay at the corner of the street…Never, even during the summers of his youth, had life seemed so free of oppression as it had since the beginning of this summer. But in summer, everything is uncertain — a ‘metaphysical’ season, his philosophy teacher, Maurice Caveing, had once told him. Whatever or wherever Daragane dreamt of navigating through his past memories could not come true in his life as those memories in dream acted like shadows. He could see them but they did not really exist as has been visualised in Modiano’s observation:
«Mais ces souvenirs se dérobaient à lui au fur et à mesure, comme des bulles de savon ou les lambeaux d’un rêve qui se volatilisent au réveil. Sa mémoire aurait été plus vivace dans le café rue des Mathurins, devant le théâtre, là où il attendait sa mère, ou aux alentours de la gare Saint-Lazare, une zone qu’il avait beaucoup fréquentée autrefois. Mais non. Certainement pas. Ce n’était plus la même ville.»
(But these memories drifted away like bubbles of soap or fragments of a dream that vanished on waking. His memory would have been livelier in the café in rue des Mathurins, opposite the theatre, where he used to wait for his mother, or in the close vicinity of the gare Saint-Lazare, an area he had known well in the past. But no. It would not have been, it was no longer the same city.)
As usual with his craftsmanship Modiano deals with memory and identity in this novella. Modiano’s investigation into memory has earned him comparisons with Marcel Proust, but where — À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) — spends seven volumes comprehensively navigating the narrator’s past, Modiano’s fiction has a more immediate predicament that prompts the scrutiny, a question to be answered. Proust represents contemplative self-reflection, whereas Modiano works with mysteries as metaphors. However, — the investigation will force Daragane to confront the memory of a trauma he had all but buried. The identity crisis for Daragane begins when he meets the man who retrieved his address book, and is asked about a particular name, Guy Torstel, which appears not only in Daragane’s address book but also in his first novel, published, like Modiano’s, decades earlier. Daragane has no recollection of this Guy Torstel, nor of his debut, but as Gilles, the inquiring stranger, continues to probe, memories begin to return to Daragane, slowly, murkily, until he is suddenly confronted by his complicated past and the woman who, in part, made it that way. Annie Astrand hosted Daragane in his youth, exposing the young boy to a rowdy, well-frequented household. These memories — and this woman — shake Daragane to his core, but what do these revelations have to do with Gilles’s curiosity? What is Annie Astrand to him? Or Guy Torstel, for that matter? Gilles is certainly shady — a woman who is always by his side confirms this to Daragane — but until these connections are elucidated, the enigmas remain.
That is why, it is observed that Daragane recalled having walked along a road at the end of which he could see the Moulin-Rouge. He had not dared go further than the central reservation of the boulevard for fear of getting lost. The walks he used to take as a kid and wonder how far away he had strayed. Then he remembers a piece of paper Annie would give him as he set out for these jaunts, on which were written her address and the title phrase, ‘So you don’t get lost in the neighbourhood.’
What draws Modiano’s readers’ attention is that Annie had not merely written the address on the sheet of paper folded in four, but the words: So you don’t get lost in the neighbourhood. Annie gave Daragane that address and that reassurance when he was young, yet here Daragane still is, wrestling with his past and its significance to his identity, lost in his own neighbourhood. In his drowsiness, he could hear Annie’s voice, more and more distant, and all he could understand was the end of a sentence: ‘… So you don’t get lost in the neighbourhood…’ On waking up, in this bedroom, he realised that it had taken him fifteen years to cross the street.
However, Modiano moves Daragane deep into the labyrinthine recesses of his own memory. To begin with, it is almost nothing, the crunch of tyres on the gravel, the sound of an engine growing fainter, and you need a little more time to realise that there is no-one left in the house apart from you.
Still those characters of his childhood reminding Daragane of different events lead him to the state of nostalgia wherein he tries to grab their existence but now these are nothing but shadows. This is how Modiano, like the protagonist Jean Daragane, lets himself be tempted by those shadows until reaching the point of self-realisation as reflected in the following epigraph of this novella borrowed pragmatically by Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano from the French writer Marie-Henri Beyle pen-named Stendhal.
Je ne puis pas donner la réalité des faits, je n’en
puis présenter que l’ombre.
(I cannot provide the reality of events,
I can only convey their shadow)
Mohammad Khabir Uddin is a researcher and an instructor of English and French.
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