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Patrick Modiano: Quartier perdu (A Trace of Malice)

If you have read any other Patrick Modiano books, you will be aware of some his favourite themes. There is the idea of the man going back to look for his past. Often he will wander around Paris, commenting on how much it has changed. Sometimes, the same person will have two personae, the contemporary one, usually the narrator, and his past, where he is often a very different person, perhaps with a murky secret that he has or knows of but which, for some reason, he has not fully confronted. There is always some mysterious crime or similar event hiding somewhere. This, in a nutshell, is this book.

Our hero/narrator is Jean Dekker. Or, rather, he isn’t. Jean Dekker is who he was nearly twenty years ago, when he was twenty. At that time, he abruptly left France and has not returned since. All that time he has been living in England under the somewhat appropriate name of Ambrose Guise. Under that name, he has had a very successful career as a writer of detective novels and he has married an Englishwoman and they have a daughter.

He has had minimal contact with his home country since then, generally limited to reading French newspapers in a newsagent’s in London and more or less considers himself English.

However, now, his wife and daughter are off on holiday to Klosters, where he will shortly join them, but only after a brief sojourn in Paris. His visit there is really just an excuse to visit Paris. He is seeing his Japanese publisher, to sign a contract and collect a large cheque. (Don’t editors/agents do that sort of thing?). (Pedants’ note 1: he comments on his pale green passport with two lions on it. This would make it a Gabonese passport. As he is referring to a British passport, it is currently burgundy but was then (1984) dark blue. Pedants’ note 2: his Japanese publisher, decidedly male, is called Yoko, a Japanese female name.)

He is in Paris in July and finds it strangely deserted, with all the French having gone off on holiday, leaving the city to Japanese tourists. He wanders around and comments on the things that have gone or changed.

We gradually, very gradually, learn that when he was a young man, he had met Carmen Blin – the full story of their meeting is given. She is a rich widow and though she is nearly twenty years older than him, he falls in love with her. He becomes friends with her and the people she knows and spends the time doing the night life of Paris. He joins in the group and we follow their respective stories. Inevitably, all of them have some story, some quirk, some secret. Jean, meanwhile, is happy to traipse around after Carmen.

By chance, on his return to Paris, he meets Tintin Carpentieri, an actor currently making a film in the streets of Paris near to Jean’s hotel. Carpentieri was on the edge of the group and fills Jean in on some details. Jean had learned from his perusal of the French newspapers that two of the group – Georges Maillot, a successful film star and Daniel de Rocroy, who was very good to Jean – had died. Carpentieri is convinced Maillot is still alive and attempts to prove it to Jean, who is not convinced.

He does meet up with two of the group who are still alive. Ghita Wattier was de Rocroy’s secretary, associate or lover, he was never sure which. She is about go on holiday and offers him the use of her flat, which was de Rocroy’s which he knows well, including the secret room. She gives him some of de Rocroy’s dossiers, containing police-type reports on some of the group. One of them concerns the death of Ludovic Fouquet and this will later turn out to be fairly important.

Of course, his next Ambrose Guise book will be somewhat different from the previous one and will involve the story we are reading.

This book seemed a bit slight compared to some of his previous works, almost as though he was not really sure where he was going with it. The mysterious murder, for example, is mentioned in passing early on, almost as though it is irrelevant. While the murder victim appears now and again, also in passing and only as one of the group, the issue about his death does not really come to the fore till quite late in the novel. Much of the novel is concerned with Jean wondering what he is doing in Paris, whether he should stay and dallying with the idea of delving further into his past or heading off to Klosters to join his wife and daughter. The people from his past he does meet – Ghita Wattier and Tintin Carpentieri – are almost shadowy characters, flitting in and out, while we never even meet Georges Maillot, though we do see him – if it is, indeed, him, which it may not be. What is particularly interesting is the idea of an almost deserted Paris.

However, the book does cover some of Modiano’s favourite themes, Jean does strongly struggle with his past and present identity and, for much of the book, we do wonder what is going on and where it is going. Interestingly, the book was published in English by the now defunct publisher, Aidan Ellis, so is very hard to find in translation.

First published 1985 by Gallimard
First published in English in 1988 by Aidan Ellis
Translated by Anthea Bell