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Patrick Modiano: Dora Bruder (Dora Bruder; The Search Warrant: Dora Bruder)

Many of Modiano’s books seem to be, at least in part, about tracking down a lost person. His novel Rue des Boutiques obscures (Missing Person), for example, had the narrator tracking down himself (because he did not know who he was) and the various people who might have known him. This novel is about tracking down a person who is almost certainly dead.

In 1988, the narrator (clearly Modiano himself) came across a 1941 French newspaper, in which there was an announcement. It stated that they were looking for a fifteen-year old girl, Dora Bruder. It gives a description of her appearance and what she would be wearing. Our narrator sets out to find her but he acts slowly, not rushing into it.

As in his other books, particularly Rue des Boutiques obscures (Missing Person), there are a lot of hits and misses. Dora Bruder is an ordinary Jewish girl and therefore there are not a lot of records left of her.

The narrator tracks down old records, often with difficulty, but he also speculates on what might have happened. For example, he learns that her father was born in Vienna and guesses that his family might have come from the Eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but moved to Vienna at the end of World War I. Dora’s mother was born in Budapest and the same thing might have happened to her family.

We know that Ernest Bruder, her father, had joined the French Foreign Legion but not where he joined, either in France or in a French consulate elsewhere. We know he was invalided out. We know that Cécile Burdej, her mother, came to Paris from Budapest with her family, four sisters and one brother, and that three of the sisters died of typhoid.

We also know that Dora was, according to her cousin, whom the narrator manages to track down, quite headstrong. Was this why she was sent to a nearby boarding school and not only a boarding school but a Catholic boarding school?

He continues his investigations, sometimes having success, sometimes not, sometimes speculating on what might or might not have happened to her. He looks for the convent school – Saint-Cœur-de-Marie – and finds that it has gone but learns that it plays a key role in Hugo’s Les Misérables. You can read about it here.

He is particularly interested in the fact that, as the announcement mentioned above indicates, she ran away from home. Why did she run away? The time she ran away was a bitterly cold winter, so how and where did she live during her escape? Did the Germans, the police or her family find her? What were the consequences of her running away?

We also learn a lot about what happened in Paris during the German occupation and particularly what happened to the Jews. Some survived – he speaks to some of the survivors – but many perished. There were various camps around Paris, which we learn about but, inevitably, many were sent off to Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination camps. We also learn about the increasing onerous restrictions they faced and the regular round-ups of suspects. The narrator’s father was Jewish and was there during the war. He was arrested but managed to flee. We also hear about the very poor relationship between the narrator and his son after the war.

The narrator wanders round Paris and tells us, often in detail, how it has changed. He relates this to the fate of the Jewish population, not least because many of the buildings associated with Dora’s story have long since gone or have fallen into decay.

The point of the story is clearly to show the fate of the Jews in Paris during the war. Though he does not emphasise the point, he shows that the Germans were helped by the French in their repression and murder of the Jews. Dora Bruder was just one unfortunate girl, a French national but a Jew, who was caught up in this repression and suffered for it but she represents the Jewish population of Paris. A few survived. Sadly, all too many did not.

First published 1997 by Gallimard
First published in English by University of California Press in 1999
Translator: Joanna Kilmartin