Patrick Modiano: Les Boulevards de ceinture (Ring Roads)
Patrick Modiano’s first three novels were set during the German occupation of France. This is the third and final book of the so-called Occupation Trilogy.
The novel opens in the bar Clos-Foucré, in a pretty village on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest, some 35-40 miles South of Paris. There are four people in the bar. The narrator, who, we later learn, is called Serge Alexandre, tells us that one of them is his father, Chalva Deyckecaire, also known as Baron Deyckecaire. There is also Guy de Marcheret, a former member of the Foreign Legion, who is thirty-six but says he is finished, as he has malaria but also claims to be the Count Guy de Marcheret d’Eu; Jean Murraille, a newspaper editor; and the owner of the bar, Maud Gallas. They and, indeed, others living in the village, seem to be involved in the black market. We later meet Sylviane Quimphe, a prostitute. Annie Muraille, allegedly the niece of Jean (Was she really the niece of Jean Muraille? I have never been able to clarify that) also appears as the fiancée of Guy de Marcheret.
They also produce a magazine of somewhat dubious quality called C’est la vie. The cover we see has a picture of a woman in a suggestive pose. It seems to be involved in some sort of blackmailing scam, whereby they find stories about people and tell the people that they will publish them unless they pay a fee. Serge’s father seems to be involved in the magazine.
One of things that seems to be happening in the village is that people are fleeing, presumably because of the Germans (though this is barely mentioned) while others, like the characters named, are taking advantage of this and buying up houses on the cheap.
When Serge enters the bar, he recognises his father but his father clearly does not recognise him. Serge makes no effort to tell his father who he is.
We learn why father and son are no longer in contact. He only met his father for the first time when he was seventeen. He was at college. His father turned up out of the blue and announced that he was his father and took him out of college, just after he had finished his baccalauréat. His father seemed to be involved in shady dealings involving collections of stamps and other rare items. Serge accompanies him. One interesting point that would not show in translation (I assume – I read the novel in French) is that father and son use the formal vous form to one another.
They frequently move and have various difficulties till Serge hits on an idea. He claims to be familiar with all French writers, including the most obscure. He also knows that many collectors covet books with author dedications in them. With his knowledge of French literature and his ability as a forger, he is soon supplying the market.
His father has one other interest – the Petite Ceinture. This is a railway line that went round Paris, a bit like the Circle Line used to do in London, till they messed it up. It ceased to function in 1934 but the father has ideas of reviving it. As with his other ideas, he does not get very far but does take his son on the Paris Métro, where he apparently attempts to push his son in front of a train. They have not seen one another since.
These louche characters and their activities and Serge’s relationship with his father (though he does not reveal his identity to him and nor, it would seem, does his father guess who he is) form the basis of the story. Who is the father really and, indeed, who is Serge? He also gets involved in the shady newspaper as well as becoming friendly with his father. We also follow the various activities of the group, including the fact that they want to squeeze Serge’s father out. They are also worried, as the war seems to be coming to an end, about Article 75 of the Penal Code (link in French) which deals with collaboration and betrayal.
Inevitably it does not turn out well but life goes on, even after a war. Serge does bring in the issue of anti-Semitism, not least because it would seem that his father was Jewish but this is certainly not a key part of the book. As we would expect from Modiano, things are not entirely clear, the narrator is unreliable and there is not much happliy ever after.
First published 1972 by Gallimard
First published in English by Gollancz in 1974
Translator: Caroline Hillier