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Patrick Modiano: Encre sympathique (Invisible Ink)

I was bemused by the title when I first saw it. However, it seems that sympathetic ink, both in English and French, is an alternative name for invisible ink, a term more common in the US than in the UK. While the title may be somewhat odd, the story is your standard Modiano.

Our narrator is a young man, called Jean Eyben who has a Belgian passport (but, as this is Modiano, it does not necessarily mean that he is Belgian). As usual he wants to be a writer but has taken up another job, both to earn a living and give him material for his writing. This job is working with the Hutte Agency, a small detective agency. His first job is to track down a woman called Noëlle Lefebvre.

He has three clues: her (old) address, her card which allows her to pick up her mail at the poste restante section of the post office and the name of a café where she used to hang out. The first two prove fruitless but he does, eventually, meet someone at the café who used to know her. He is Gérard Mourade, a would-be actor.

Mourade tells him, to his surprise, that Noëlle is married, to a man interestingly named Roger Behaviour. It seems that Roger had also been looking for her but that he, too, now seems to have disappeared. He also learns that she worked for a famous leather goods shop.

In usual Modiano fashion we jump forward ten years, giving him the chance to comment on changes in Paris (blocks of flats knocked down) and we also go back a bit but not to the time of the original story. He picks up clues, some of which lead somewhere while others do not. He even resorts to the Internet but with no success.

Gradually, over the years he follows various trails, some misleading, some involving people who are not who they seem to be and often leading to dead ends. He tells us more than once that he wants to tell this tale in chronological order but then does not.

I have a very strange feeling. It seems to me as if everything was written in invisible ink. Earlier, when with Mourade, he had visited Noëlle’s flat. He had found her diary and stolen it. There was not much information in it but later, much later, he realises some of the entries had been written in invisible ink. However, the invisible ink theme becomes a metaphor both for his life and, in particular, for this story and his involvement in it. If you sometimes have gaps in your memory, all the details of your life are written somewhere in invisible ink.

Jean claims that he tries to forget the past but, as often in Modiano’s work, it comes creeping up on him. We learn that he had grown up in the Annecy area as had Noëlle. Indeed, mutual connections are one of his sources though, as with all his researches, they only provide rudimentary information. However, it does make him go back, to a certain degree, to his past, a past which, as with many of us, can suddenly unexpectedly reappear.

I found this book to be one of his most interesting. Though it it is similar in style to his earlier ones, it seems more mature, not least because of the somewhat surprising ending, the fact that we have his name and his focus on the main plot line.

First published in 2019 by Gallimard
First published in English in 2020 by Yale University Press
Translated by Mark Polizzotti