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Patrick Modiano: Remise de peine (Suspended Sentences)

The book opens with a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson which, to some degree, sums up Modiano’s oeuvre:

There is scarce a family that can count four generations but lays a claim to some dormant title or some castle and estate: a claim not prosecutable in any court of law, but flattering to the fancy and a great alleviation of idle hours. A man’s claim to his own past is yet less valid

If you have read a few Modiano works you will be familiar with some of his major tropes. He looks back to his childhood. There is a character who, at least in part, is based on the author. He visits Paris as an adult and tries to find the old Paris he knew as a child. His father often goes missing. There are strange, decidedly shady characters hanging around. The shadow of World War II is there. We have all of these and more in this book.

The Modiano character is only thinly disguised, a young boy called Patoche, an affectionate nickname for boys called Patrick. The setting is in the 1950s. Young Patoche and his younger brother have been sent to stay with three women in a village not far from Paris. Their father spends much time travelling in Africa, particularly Brazzaville, though he does turn up now and then to visit them. Their mother is an actress and she is on tour with her theatrical company.

Their exact connection with the three women is unclear, though it seems that their father, at least, spent some time in the area before and during the war and that one of the women is Patoche’s godmother.

The three women are Mathilde, her daughter, Annie, and Hélène. Hélène used to be a circus acrobat but was badly injured and retired from that profession, the boys are naturally fascinated by this. It seems that Annie and Mathilde got to know Hélène and decided to leave the marital home and live with Hélène. We do not know what happened to the husband/father. There is a fourth woman who becomes involved, helping to look after the boys. We only know her by the nickname the boys give her – Snow White. Another woman, Frede, a former circus owner, visits regularly with her young nephew and he plays with the boys. He is known only as the nephew of Frede.

Patoche is sent to a local school where he is surprised, when first taken there, that Annie tells the headmistress that she is his mother. He is soon asked to leave the school, nominally because he is a poor student but, in fact, almost certainly because the headmistress has discovered that Annie is not his mother. He is sent to another school, where he soon fits in and, indeed, starts a gang.

When their father visited, he mentioned a nearby castle, now seemingly abandoned but once owned by a marquis. He made (illegal) armagnac and sold it on the black market with the help of the boys’ father. The father tells them if he sees the marquis, to give him his best wishes. However, it seems that the marquis has long since disappeared, wanted by the police. However, the boys set up a fantasy that he returns at night by the last train and they plan to sneak out and go and see him. The plan is not entirely successful.

As this is Modiano, it is not long before various louche characters start appearing at the house. The boys are quite taken with them. For example, one of them has a US car and takes Patoche to school in it, which impresses him and his schoolfriends. He also gives Patoche a detective novel to read, which the women consider totally inappropriate.

Annie frequently goes off to Paris for the day, though the boys do not know why. Eventually, she takes them and they are often left in the car while she goes and sees someone. It is these episodes that the older Patoche will later recall.

The boy also hear mention of the Rue Lauriston gang. Patoche is interested as he has his gang at school. He will also hear of this gang later in reference to his father. His father was arrested in he war because he had breached a curfew which applied to Jews. He had been rescued by a man who was associated with the Rue Lauriston gang and, indeed, the older Patoche finds that the gang was associated with a garage that he had visited with Annie as a child. As is not uncommon with Modiano, he is unable to track it down.

It has become very clear to us, if not to the boys, that these various visitors, however charming and friendly they may be, are up to no good and this will become more apparent at the end of the book.

As always with Modiano, we have a book that digs up the past, has a mysterious atmosphere hanging over it, that references the war and that never fully explains what is happening and what happened or why. However, as always, we are dragged into the story, unsure of where Modiano is taking us.

First published 1988 by Éditions du Seuil
First published in English by Yale University Press in 2014
Translator: Mark Polizzotti