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Patrick Modiano: Un cirque passe (After the Circus)

If you have read other Modiano novels, you will find much that is familiar in this book. It is narrated by a young, fairly naive man, presumably based on Modiano himself. His parents are missing in action. In this case, his mother is somewhere in Spain. We briefly meet his father, before he flees to Switzerland, apparently to escape the French authorities, confirmed because he later instructs his assistant to destroy all of his papers. He meets a mysterious young woman and, as we learn very early on, as he tells us about the future, he loses her. She is associated with some distinctly unsavoury characters and drags him into this association. Whatever they are up to, it is undoubtedly illegal. He looks back at Paris and changes in the city(in this story, both from the present of the novel to the past, but also from the future of the novel to its present). Finally, he is being watched by the police.

Our narrator seemingly has three names. We learn, virtually at the end of the book, that he is (probably) called Jean. In the meantime, Gisèle, the mysterious woman, calls him Lucien, while Henri Grabley, his father’s assistant, with whom he shares a flat, calls him Obligado (an in-joke between the two).

We first meet him (and her) in the police station. The police have called him in to ask him a few questions, allegedly because his name was in someone’s address book. He tells the truth in part but also lies, e.g. stating that his father had gone to Belgium. On the way out he sees a young woman (actually four years older than him) who seems to be called Gisèle, though we later learn that this might not be her real name. He decides to wait for her in a nearby café.

She asks him to help her and they get a heavy case she has in a locker and take it to his flat, where they spend the night. It seems that she has had to move out of where she was staying and he agrees to put her up for a while. Jean, our narrator, was planning to move to Rome. An antiques dealer, to whom he sold some of his father’s antiques, had told him of a job in Rome in a bookshop that sold French books and they wanted a French person who knew a bit about French literature. He eagerly accepts. He suggests to Gisèle that she accompany him and she agrees.

We now follow the couple as they drift around Paris. She introduces him to her friends (she pretends that he is her brother) who are decidedly suspicious. One of them even lends them a car which she drives (he is too young) around Paris like a mad woman. They get somewhat involved in the activities of her unsavoury friends. Meanwhile, the equally unsavoury Grabley tries to get them involved with him and his stripper girlfriend. She keeps disappearing and reappearing.

As is often the case with Modiano, there is a perennial air of mystery hanging over the story. Who is Gisèle? Who are her friends? What are they all up to? Why did his father suddenly flee Paris and why did he want his papers suddenly destroyed? What are the police looking for and why? Where is his mother and why? What is his real name? What happened to the circus of the title? The only fixed point is the city of Paris, which he describes in some detail, both from the perspective of the present of the story but also from both the past and future.

It is another fine tale from Modiano, as our narrator is all too often left drifting around, unsure of what is going on and what he is going to do. All he knows is that we wants a life involving literature but he is unsure as to how to get there. We are left equally unsure.

First published 1992 by Gallimard
First published in English by Yale University Press in 2015
Translator: Mark Polizzotti