Posts Tagged ‘Patrick Modiano’

I have a story and then a question for you. Here is the story.


The main character, our hero, has amnesia. He doesn’t remember anything from his past. Someone is nice to him and gets him new papers and a new identity. But our hero wants to discover his past and find out who he really is. So one day he takes the flimsy clues he has and starts working on them. He meets some people who seem to remember him vaguely. One thing leads to another and he sees someone resembling himself in a photo. He tries tracking down the other people in the photo. After following up a clue, he realizes that he is one person. But then he reaches a dead end and then he follows another clue and he realizes that he is another person. This continues fascinatingly as our hero tries to grapple with his past as more people resembling him keep cropping up and he discovers secrets about people he might have known, without discovering who he actually is. Does our hero find out who he truly is?


Now, the question. Does the above plot sound familiar? Can you guess which novel it is?


Of course you do. If we let our imagination run a little bit wild and add a bullet wound to our hero which made him amnesiac and forget his past, and add a few bad guys who chase our hero for something that he may or may not have done, we can easily guess that this is the story told in ‘The Bourne Identity’ by Robert Ludlum. Well, you and I would be both right and wrong.


The above is the story told in ‘Missing Person’ by Patrick Modiano. When I read about this book in Lance Donaldson-Evans’ ‘One Hundred Great French Books’, I found its resemblance to ‘The Bourne Identity’ uncanny. These days, I keep spotting books which resemble twins separated at birth – a recent book or a popular book in English, which was a big hit among its readers and another one which looks like its twin, which is written in another language, which was published earlier and which is not very widely known. Most of the time, this older twin doesn’t get the credit it deserves and doesn’t even merit a mention by the writer of the more popular work. The cynic in me thinks that the writer of the popular work read the original in translation, got inspired by the main idea and rewrote it in English in an attractive way and cornered all the fame and fortune. Sometimes these popular works are iconic works in English and that pains me even more, because the source is almost never acknowledged or is given the short shrift. Well, when I discovered Patrick Modiano’s book, I thought that something like that must have happened here too. I even went and checked the publishing dates of both the books. Modiano’s book was published in 1978, while Ludlum’s book was published in 1980. I think there is enough time there to read a book and get inspired by it. Ludlum himself says this, while talking about what inspired him to write the Bourne series (excerpted from Wikipedia) :


Interestingly, the idea behind the Bourne trilogy was conceptualized after his (Ludlum’s) own experience with temporary amnesia. After his first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance, was published, he could not remember 12 hours of his life. This event, combined with thrilling real-life spy stories, inspired him to write the Jason Bourne trilogy.


We will never know what the truth is because Ludlum is not around to confirm whatever theory one might come up with, but it was fascinating for me to spot this random connection and potential inspiration.


Now a closer look at Modiano’s book.

Missing Person By Patrick Modiano

Modiano’s book won the Prix Goncourt in 1978. So when we look beyond the plot similarities that it has with Ludlum’s book, it is very different. It is literary. There are beautiful images that Modiano paints throughtout the book.


Here are a couple of images on pronouncing names :


He pronounced the name in the Russian way. It was very soft, like wind rustling in the trees.


He handed me the photographs one by one, telling me the names and dates he read on the back : it was a litany, to which the Russian names lent a particular resonance, now explosive like cymbals clashing, now plaintive or almost mute.


And here is one on the fog :


A fog had come up, soft but with an icy feel to it. It filled your lungs with such cold that you felt you were floating on air.


And here are a couple on sound and music :


…the sound of it stirred something in me, something as fleeting as moonlight passing over some object.


…a tune, played on the saxophone, followed, so pure it melted into the air.


And here is one on echoes of the past  :


I believe that the entrance halls of buildings still retain the echo of footprints of those who used to cross them and who have since vanished. Something continues to vibrate after they have gone, fading waves, but which can still be picked up if one listens carefully.


And here is one on expressing the essence :


…when I sipped this liqueur, it blended in with the rather cloying satins, ivories and gilt around me. It expressed the very essence of this apartment.


‘Missing Person’ is not just the search of the main character for his past, but it is also a meditation on identity and what makes a person who he or she is. It asks interesting questions on what and who we are – whether we are the products of our past, or whether we are what we do and think in the present or whether we are a summation of our future potential. It is a fascinating philosophical question that is explored in the book through the search of Guy Roland for his past. At some point our hero says this :


      Until now everything has seemed so chaotic, so fragmented…Scraps, shreds have come to light as a result of my searches…But then that is perhaps what a life amounts to..

      Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?


Fascinating lines which make us think.


Does Guy Roland find out about his past? You have to read the book to find out.


I liked ‘Missing Person’ very much. It was partly a mystery story and partly a meditation into the meaning of identity. I loved imagining the beautiful images that Modiano paints throughout the book. The ending is a bit open, which also made it interesting and which would have led to a lot of conversations and debates when the book was first published. This is my first Prix Goncourt book and I am hoping to read more in the future.


Have you read Patrick Modiano’s ‘Missing Person’? What do you think about it?

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