Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Review: The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano, translated by Mark Polizzotti

The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano The Black Notebook (7 January 2016) by Patrick Modiano, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti

I hadn't planned for such a recent translation to be the first Modiano I read, but its appearance on my local library's 'New Books' shelf was irresistible. In the end, I consumed this brief, hallucinatory novel in one gulp.

Within its pages is an account of a journey: that of a writer named Jean, who wanders Paris in search of the truth about a woman he loved long ago. It's a mystery of sorts - the woman, Dannie, may or may not have done something terrible, and this is shrouded in secrecy, as is the exact nature of her relationship with a gang of shady criminals. But it's also a dreamy stream-of-consciousness that's at its strongest when ruminating on the power of memory, allowing the narrator to slip back and forth in time until the lines between present-day reality and echoes of the past become blurred. Memories merge with the act of remembering. Indeed, the story starts with the line: 'And yet, it was no dream'; Jean might be making a statement here, but he's just as likely to be trying to convince himself.
They were only a few centimetres away from me behind the window, and the second one, with his moonlike face and hard eyes, didn't notice me either. Perhaps the glass was opaque from inside, like a one-way mirror. Or else, very simply, dozens and dozens of years stood between us: they remained frozen in the past, in the middle of that hotel foyer, and we no longer lived, they and I, in the same space of time.
The key to Jean's search, and apparently the evidence that none of this was a dream, is his black notebook. He uses the notebook as a guide, trying to traverse the Paris of his past - but he's almost always thwarted, finding the city changed. The story frequently captures the mingled pleasure and pain of revisiting youthful haunts; somehow you expect magic, and get nothing but a vague, off-kilter familiarity and a sense of the inexorable passage of time.
Could I possibly have left behind a double, someone who would repeat each of my former movements, follow in my old footsteps, for all eternity? No, nothing remained of us here. Time had wiped the slate clean. The area was brand-new, sanitised, as if it had been rebuilt on the site of a condemned block. And even though most of the buildings were still the same, they made you feel as if you were looking at a taxidermied dog, a dog you had once owned, that you had loved when it was alive.
Some of the locations Jean frequented as a young man, such as the country house he and Dannie visited, seem not to exist - did they ever? Then there's the places and people he knew only by code names to begin with. Everything is elusive; even Paris itself is amorphous. Some of the story is told through the medium of Jean's interrogation by a detective; yet another man chasing the truth about Dannie. That idea of the one-way mirror will keep recurring, the image of the present and the past standing on opposite sides of a sheet of glass, close enough to touch. So it is that in dreams you watch others live through the uncertainties of the present, while you know the future.

The Black Notebook is like a Parisian parallel to Tomás Eloy Martínez's The Tango Singer in its vivid portrayal of a city and the pursuit of a shadowy, shifting figure; it also reminded me of First Execution by Domenico Starnone - it's not as explicitly metafictional, but the books share a sense that the story could go anywhere, that memories are malleable and events already long in the past have a multitude of possible outcomes.  It might be a quick read, but its depths seem fathomless. I'll certainly be seeking out more Modiano.

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1 comment:

  1. I haven't read this author yet. I have a friend who wants to start a reading group that only reads Nobel Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize winning fiction. We will see if she does. I enjoyed your review because I love Paris and I related to what you said. When I go back to the most wonderful town I ever lived in, Ann Arbor, MI, it is so changed that the magic I found there is no longer.

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