So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood by Patrick Modiano, trans. Euan Cameron, review

An atmospheric translation does ample justice to this spectral tale

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The Independent Culture

In France, almost as much as abroad, Patrick Modiano seemed a man of mystery when, last year, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Through his 30-odd concise and elliptical novels, the shadows of wartime and post-war survival and subterfuge still clung to him. As the mysterious Annie Astrand says with a shiver when she meets the narrator of So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighbourhood in a chilly, deserted mansion by the Bois de Boulogne, "It's full of ghosts here." Unquiet and persistent, they throng Modiano's work.

Along with Bloomsbury's recent edition of The Occupation Trilogy, this latest novel and his 2005 memoir of childhood should allow readers here a clearer sight of Modiano's phantoms. The novel, published in 2014, concerns a solitary, ageing author named Jean Daragane – born, like Modiano, in 1945. His early years return when a sinister stranger, one Gilles Ottolini, finds Daragane's lost address book and starts quizzing – or maybe stalking – him about a long-forgotten name in it. "An insect bite was all it took to pierce the cellophane" that protects the present from the past.

With the help of Gilles's enigmatic girlfriend, Chantal Grippay, Daragane revisits the period in the early 1950s when, abandoned by his parents, he lived with the showgirl-courtesan Annie on the outskirts of Paris.

Via "secret staircases and hidden doors", both literal and figurative, we glimpse traces of a murder, a cover-up, a flight to Italy. Behind it all, as ever with Modiano, lie dark deeds of collaboration and betrayal under the German Occupation.

Only the tiniest fragments hint at this background; Modiano makes his readers hunt for links "like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle that has been lost". A little sleuthing shows that some of the names and addresses cited in the novel allude to the worst horrors of the Occupation years. He never spells them out. Meanwhile, in the foreground, the child's sense of abandonment incubates a grief that, if triggered, may "unfurl through the years" like the fuse on a rediscovered wartime bomb. Euan Cameron's atmospheric translation does ample justice to this spectral tale.

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