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Patrick Modiano: Rue des Boutiques obscures (Missing Person)

Guy Roland – not his real name – has worked for the past eight years for the somewhat mysterious Hutte. Hutte has a detective agency in Paris, which seemingly specialises in tracking down missing people. In the pre-Internet days (the novel is set in 1965), he has an enviable collection of directories to aid in his work. Hutte is now planning to retire to the South of France and is shutting up shop. Though he is closing the business, he leaves Roland a key to the flat, not least so that he can consult the directories.

Roland is not taking over the business nor is he going into the business on his own account. He has another case to solve – his own. He has no idea who he is. Guy Roland, as mentioned, is not is his name, but a name given to him by Hutte (along with appropriate identity papers). (Pedants’ note: this common TV/cinema/book trope, where a person loses his/her memory to the extent of not knowing who they are or, indeed, any events of their previous life but, in all other respects seem perfectly normal, i.e. they can remember more recent events, is very rare outside TV/cinema/books. However, it makes for an interesting story, which is what we have here.)

Roland has some leads and, with the help of various friends of Hutte, obtains some more. The book is essentially how he tracks down these leads and tracks down new leads, is lead astray on numerous occasions, is recognised or partially recognised by various people and thinks that he is various people, seen in photos or mentioned by leads. He then tries to track down more about these people, all too often ending up blind alleys.

Is there some connection with a man of Russian origin called Stioppa? Is he, indeed, of Russian origin himself? Who is Gay Orlow and did he know her? could he be Howard de Luz, who was seemingly married to Gay Orlow and may or may not have some connection with Mauritius?

Drôles de gens. De ceux qui ne laissent sur leur passage qu’une buée vite dissipée [Strange people. Those who leave no trace behind except for a wisp which quickly dissipates.] (Note: translations are mine from the French original and not necessarily those used in the official translation). Is that him? He suspects it might well be.

Hutte tells him about a man of the beach who spent forty years around beaches and swimming pools, chatting with the rich on their summer holidays and appearing in lots of photos. However, no-one knew who he was or why he was there. One day, he simply disappeared. I didn’t dare tell Hutte that I thought that the man of the beach was me. Hutte’s response was that we are all men of the beach and that the sand only keeps our footprints for a few seconds.

More clues come to light. It seems he might have been connected with someone who worked at the Embassy of the Dominican Republic or maybe he was that person. He might have had to go off to Megève, possibly with Denise Coudreuse. If so, why and who was Denise? The events seemed to have taken place around the beginning of World War II. Was he trying to leave France and, if so, why?

Eventually, he even goes off to the Pacific to find more information and then to the Via delle Botteghe Oscure in Rome.

Clearly, This shows the fragility of our existence, most of us are, as Hutte said, men (or women) on the beach, leaving little trace behind, here one day, gone the next.

Modiano tells his story well, as we get a lot of false trails, dubious identifications, photos which may or may not have shown our hero, people who may or may not have known him as well as indications that he is not the only person who seems to have more or less disappeared from the map. However, I do think the amnesia plot device has been overused as this article and many others show.

First published 1978 by Gallimard
First published in English by David R. Godine in 2005
Translator: Daniel Weissbort