“That is her secret.. A poor and precious secret which not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, history, time – everything that corrupts and destroys you – have been able to take away from her.”
That quote is in fact the last sentence of this wonderful, macabre, paranoid story of Paris and the Nazis. The start is this little scrap of a newspaper small ad for information on a missing girl:
Written as fiction but more a rare kind of journalism that includes some autobiography intertwined with investigation. Modiano has been awarded the Nobel Prize and this slim tome is testament enough to his stature even in translation by Joanna Kilmartin (who has also translated Francoise Sagan). His first language was in fact Flemish although French is his medium of choice, Paris geography his canvas. This is very much psycho-geography, the city pieced together as it disappeared over the decades taking its painful stories with it.
This rates as a great Jewish text even if he was not strictly Jewish himself – his mother was Belgian – and the main characters are only tangentially aware of the implications of what that might mean in world war 2 where collusions of authority overlap and where reason is overtaken by process. Modiano, decades later, still finds fragments of lives in official records.
Why is it that repressive regimes like the Nazis or the Soviets became so obsessive about keeping records of their atrocities? What was the point of numbering Jews? Two of many questions raised here in a small work of genius.