Patrick Modiano, In the Café of Lost Youth (2007)

Now, that’s more like it… After the distasteful / disastrous encounter with Place de l’Etoile, Modiano’s first book, this more recent novel is what most people expect for this author, and it’s a good (albeit melancholy) story.

The focus of the book is Louki, a young woman who used to be a regular patron of a café in Paris, and who died after throwing herself from a window. The book is an attempt to understand her, but also the impossibility to really know who Louki was.

We’re not sure who the narrator is at first, and then once I thought I’d nailed it (a shy young man in the café, probably Modiano’s alter-ego, who many years later will remember Louki), then the voice changes. Sometimes it’s Louki herself, sometimes it’s a private investigator who has been hired by Louki’s husband. Not only does the point of view change, but also the time setting. At some moment we’re in an undefined past (the 1960s maybe?), sometimes we’re in the present and looking back at the past events. One of the good points of this book is the experience of feeling lost (as the title mentions), but it’s probably not for everybody.

The tone of the book is nostalgic but it’s not to say that the past is all rosy. Louki grew up with a single mother who worked at night at the Moulin Rouge and in her absence she took to walking alone in the streets, being arrested for vagrancy. Louki later belongs to a group of friends, but this is very vague, and there’s also some drug addiction involved, contributing to her general despair and loneliness.

The Café of Lost Youth is to me a reference to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time. Modiano could actually borrow Proust’s title in its entirety. Louki is lost to the now adult narrator, as is the group of people she was with and many buildings and streets of Paris. As the song goes “Paris sera toujours Paris” with its Moulin rouge, landmarks, streets and cafés, but it’s also never the same.

One could also say that Modiano is always telling the same story about the past, but it’s also never the same. And I love it!

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