So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood
By Patrick Modiano
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
155 pages, $24
By Michael D. Langan
Jean Daragane is a reclusive author who rarely leaves his Paris apartment. He doesn’t like being disturbed.
So it is with great aggravation that he finally answers the incessant ringing of his phone on a very hot September afternoon.
“It’s about your address book, monsieur,” says the voice on the line.
Daragane knew he had lost it on the train he had taken to the Cote d’Azur the previous month.
“I found an address book with your name on it.” The caller’s voice is “dreary and threatening.”
Daragane doesn’t want this unknown caller to come to his place to return the address book, so he agrees to meet him the next afternoon at 5 p.m. near the gare Saint-Lazare.
“Very well, monsieur. At 42 rue de l’Arcade,” Daragane says, and he rings off, regretting his own impatience at someone wishing to do him a favor.
This is the set up for this noir novel by Nobel Prize in literature winner, the French author, Patrick Modiano.
I found the beginning of this novel exceptionally spooky, as I was sitting in my own study reading this book on an extremely hot September afternoon when my own phone rang. Now, knowing what eventually happens to Daragane, I am glad to have let mine ring.
In fact, as Daragane thought about it, there weren’t many names or addresses in the book; perhaps 30, and none important anymore. It was only the fact of his own name and address that bothered him, and he wanted it back for that reason. The world was full of blackmailers, he thought.
Daragane goes to the café at that address the next day and takes a seat in the back. A man of about 40 shows up and stands in front of him with a girl younger than he. His name? He announces himself as Gilles Ottolini. He has brought along a friend, Chantal Grippay.
Ottolini returns the book to Daragane, and in a confession of inquisitiveness, admits that he has leafed through it and noticed a name, Guy Torstel, about whom he would like some information. He says that Torstel’s name had a seven-digit phone number after it, no longer in service.
“I’m sorry,” Daragane says, “At my age one suffers memory losses … I must leave you …”
It turns out that Daragane does remember the name after all. It appeared in his first novel, “Le Noir de l’été.” More than that, his perfected recollection brings back the memory of the mystery man knowing Daragane’s mother, and both of them belonging to something called the Chrysalis Club.
So, are you hooked? I certainly was. I devoured the book, savoring its quiet menace. The novel has a sparseness of style that crackles with mystery and perhaps more. Danger.
The author quotes Stendhal at the beginning, who wrote, “I cannot provide the reality of the events; I can only convey their shadow.”
Euan Cameron’s translation of this novel is masterful. Sometimes, reading a masterwork in another language is like buying a generic drug. It has the basic efficacy of the more expensive drug, but lacks the punch. Not here.
Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.