The One with the Disappeared Girl’s Secrets

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (French 1997, English 1999)

It’s not the first Modiano I get to read, but I can safely say that it’s the best one (so far?). I’m glad that I started with some other of his books to get used to his very peculiar writing style, the slowness, the melancholy, the meandering, repetitive walks through Paris. All these elements are present in Dora Bruder, but they take it to a higher level and take a whole new meaning.

Other books were more clearly fictions, interwoven with the narrator’s voice which may – or may not be – Modiano’s himself. So whenever we readers were made to walk through Paris and reflect about the past of a particular address, it sometimes felt artificial, as the whole genealogy of a building, or the anecdotes about a street or a neighborhood in Paris might all be fictional. But in Dora Bruder, Modiano is looking for a real young girl who lived in Paris. And his quest for information all across town, so difficult and fragmented, fully justifies the meandering and repetitive pace of the book.

Modiano discovers Dora Bruder while reading an old newspaper from 1941. Dora Bruder’s parents have put a classified ad in the newspaper to inquire about their daughter’s disappearance. She is 15 (as described in the ad) and Jewish (which is not apparent). Dora is totally unknown to Modiano but his curiosity is awakened and he investigates. He sees parallels between Dora’s life and his own father’s, who also survived as a Jew in Paris by hiding and doing illegal activities. Dora’s parents, both from Eastern Europe, live in a room in a poor Paris neighborhood and work small jobs. They are not in hiding and must wear the infamous yellow star. They have sent their daughter to a Catholic boarding school, but Dora runs away several times (which is when her desperate parents put the ad), and at one point, she is arrested by the police who will identify her as Jewish and send her to the Nazi camps where she is killed, in Auschwitz in 1942.

Modiano is on a quest to know all there is to know about Dora’s life (which is not much), and he also wonders about what she saw and felt, if only by citing how cold or rainy one particular day was, but she remains a ghost. He doesn’t put words in her mouth and doesn’t speculate about psychological reasons why she ran away. It is a mix between a biography and an autobiography, as he tells us about his emotions during his investigations and his memories linked to his childhood in the 1960s and his father.

It is a richly layered book set on bare-bones facts (what could be smaller than a few lines of a classified ad in a newspaper?), and it can move you to tears with melancholy and tragedy. It’s not surprising that this book has been assigned to all high-school students in France. They must write essays about it and some even have exams on it, but I hope they can still perceive the full emotional and historical value of this wonderful book.

The One with the Devon Island’s Guests

Pierre Bayard, La Vérité sur Les dix petits nègres (2019)

Let’s start with the totally inappropriate use of the N word as the title of this book. It refers to Agatha Christie’s bestselling mystery “And then there were none”, which was originally published as 1939 as “Ten Little Niggers” in the UK, as the killing of 10 guests on a deserted Devon island is based on an eponymous British (or American) nursery rhyme. It is interesting to note that right from the start it was published in the US under the title “And then there were none”, because it was offensive, and the rest of the world has been catching up ever since. This title has finally been recognized as unsavory (to say the least) by the mid-80s in the UK, and the outrage has just arrived recently to the shores of France (which is often very reactionary in this area, sadly), so that most French people have only heard of this book under the N- word title.

I have been on a Pierre Bayard binge ever since I was reminded of his existence by a recent podcast. (I had read him first in the post-baby haze, a billion years ago). So I had to borrow everything from Bayard that my library had, and then I had to order some more (2 titles should actually be coming in the post soon). Bayard is a professor of literature and a psychoanalyst. He is influenced by structuralists but don’t be intimidated by his pedigree: reading his books is actually a lot of fun!

The book is told by an unnamed narrator who plays with us readers. He starts by complaining that Agatha Christie didn’t bring the right solution to this mystery and prides himself of having committed the perfect crime. He also insists that he doesn’t even want to tell us if he’s male or female so all the sentences use s/he or his/her. After summing up the main events as told in Christie’s book, he explains why the traditional resolution is not the real one. And then he ends up explaining his own version.

Of course, if you want to go along with this book, you have to be comfortable with the idea that books characters have a life of their own outside of the pages. Which is what Bayard calls integrationism (structuralist theoreticians have created a language of their own), as opposed to Bayard’s segregationists who believe that characters are purely limited to what their creator has written down. As a writer of several short stories I am actually quite the integrationist, even before being aware of it!

It’s the perfect book for Christie’s readers who like to play amateur detectives. Christie herself said that all the elements of the solution were present in her books, but I don’t know how she would have reacted to Bayard’s books. Of course, you need to have read the original novel first, but beware, Bayard is very liberal with spoilers of other Christie’s books too.

The One with the Blue-Blood Runaway

Jean-Christophe Portes, La Disparue de Saint Maur (2017)

I’m still grieving for Nicolas Le Floch’s interrupted series after the passing of his author Jean-François Parot in 2018. But this series is a serious contender to be the next best thing when it comes to mysteries set at the end of the 18th century. Le Floch’s last mystery was set in 1787, two short years before the start of the French Revolution. Jean-Christophe Portes’ mysteries start in 1791, with the “Mystère des Corps sans Tête”, and this one, the third in the series, is set in the winter of this same year. Two years have passed since the beginning of the Revolution and already the enthusiasm and idealism of the first events have been replaced by more cynical strategies. Nothing is black and white anymore. Some want the war with the neighboring countries, some find it a folly and while some want to make good business out of it, others are manipulated by British spies. Catholic convents and monasteries have lost their privileges, and while some of them were nothing more than prisons for young women, it also means that unscrupulous businessmen can throw the nuns out and buy lands and buildings dirt cheap.

Dauterive is called to the suburbs of Paris to investigate a missing young woman, but the family isn’t keen to help. Local aristocrats, yet very poor, with two unmarried daughters still at home in their 30s, they keep away from the villagers and don’t want a policeman from the new regime to poke around. After one week they are ready to consider their daughter dead. Dauterive finds it very suspicious, but he soon has to abandon his investigation, as his mentor and master La Fayette sets him on another mission. He is to go to London to confirm a suspicion that the future Mayor of Paris would be a British intelligence asset. The trip to London proves a lot more dangerous than expected, and while Dauterive’s life is at stake, his friend Olympe de Gouges is taking up the investigation on the young runaway.

I really enjoyed the detailed atmosphere of Paris during the Revolution. It helps if you have some ideas about the general events of the period, but Dauterive, as a young and rather naive (increasingly less so) bystander, serves as a witness and participant to the historical events and he also shares his private interrogations. I’m not a specialist of the period but it feels really true, down to smells, clothes and architecture details. (Compared to Parot, Portes seems less inclined to detail whatever the characters had to eat 😉). Portes, just like Parot, likes to mix facts with fiction, and there’s an useful postface to the novel that helps distinguish the two for those who are so inclined.

I had some reservations in mixing two plot lines that are so radically different within the same book (the London trip is really a spy thriller, and the missing woman takes more of a socio-political drama mixed with a classic whodunit intrigue). But it works somehow and the pacing is good, so that it’s a real page turner! This book was part of my January selection for the Unread Shelf challence, because I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I really look forward to reading the next one in the series.

The One with the French Jewish Spy among Nazis

Marthe Cohn, Behind Enemy Lines, the true story of a French Jewish Spy in Nazi Germany (2002)

This memoir is the last book I started and finished at the tail end of 2020. In fact, it took just a few days during the Christmas holidays. I normally have to push myself to read little non-fiction, especially memoirs, so it is kind of remarkable that it was engrossing enough for me to read it during this (busy) period. Marthe Cohn has written (with the help of a co-author I must say) a very straightforward book where the most extraordinary or heart-stopping events are all taken in stride.

But first a disclaimer: the spying in Germany part only starts about halfway through the book. But unless you only come for serious spying action, the first half is not uninteresting at all: it sets the scene of Marthe’s childhood and family. Born in 1920 in a Jewish family in Lorraine (the eastern region of France that was disputed between France and Germany from 1870 to 1945), she sometimes faced antisemitic slurs as a kid, but nothing serious. We get the impression that Marthe was quite fearless and determined to make her own choices. In 1939, the war is declared with Nazi Germany, Marthe and her family, who had hoped for peace for as long as possible, are evacuated from the border to the center of France. They make a new life there, but France is defeated and the Nazi make life increasingly difficult and dangerous. Marthe’s family is resourceful and they survive thanks to fake IDs. Marthe becomes a nurse (there are more than a few comments about the Red Cross who refused to take her based on her being Jewish). Marthe’s fiancé who joined the Resistance, is arrested, tortured and killed in 1943. One of Marthe’s sisters is arrested as a Jew and dies in Auschwitz, along with some other family members.

But then you would ask: what about the spying then? When Paris is liberated in summer 1944, the war is far from over, Marthe enlists in the French army. She’s supposed to act as a nurse, but her skills in German bring her an unexpected opportunity: to work as a spy to inform French troops advancing into Germany. These are very action-packed pages as Marthe makes her way through enemy lines and has to pretend to be a Nazi nurse searching for her fiancé.

After Germany’s defeat she staid for some time in the French army, and she also worked as a nurse during the French Vietnam war (although her memoir goes very fast on that period). Around 1955 she meets an American doctor, whom she marries and follows to the US, where she still lives today!

In case you’re wondering if I have just spoilt the entire book to you, Marthe’s story is full of lively details that make the story stand out. She tells the event with a lack of pathos and an immediacy that makes her alive and so courageous. She reminded me of Geneviève de Gallard, who was a nurse in Dien Bien Phu, the huge French defeat in Vietnam in the mid-1950s, whom I heard telling her story on the French radio years ago. Everything was crystal clear and no-nonsense, no-drama, as if every choice you make under these really tragic circumstances was easy to do. The way to tell this story gives just the basics about psychology, and the downside is that it is easy to gloss over some trauma, some events or simply not mention some others. I wondered if it had to do with working as a nurse, or in the army.

At any case Marthe Cohn’s life has been extraordinary and it is an uplifting read. She is actually 100 now and living in California!

The Ones with Paris Slums and Quirky Streets

Jean-Michel Payet, Balto le dernier des valets de coeur (2020)

This book cover was so gorgeous (with golden accents!) that I borrowed it right from the new arrivals shelf at the library. Set in 1920, exactly one century ago, it is a coming-of-age story combined with adventure and a mystery, and a good introduction to a complex historical period. Balto, the hero and narrator, is an orphaned teenager living in squalid poverty on the outskirts of Paris, but he’s not alone. His adopted mother, an ex-cabaret dancer, lives in a trailer next to him, and he has many friends in the slums. Still, the one he’s missing most is his adopted big brother, Victor, who is on the run from the police: during World war one, he was court-martialed as a deserter and he barely escaped with his life.

Balto receives a mysterious message from Victor, but instead of finding him at the meeting place, there’s a dead body in the bicycle repair shop! And even worse, a journalist on site witnesses Balto taking the weapon and mistakes him for the killer. The journalist is an ambitious young woman, Emilienne, who agrees to investigate together with Balto as long as she will get the exclusive scoop for her newspaper. Soon enough the two discover that veterans from Victor’s old battalion are getting murdered. The police soon has Victor as the main suspect and hopes that Balto will lead them to him.

I came for the cover and the mystery, I really staid for Balto and for the language. The book (targeted for teen readers) use old Parisian slang very convincingly and it gives a nice authentic atmosphere. 1920 is only two years after the end of the war, and as much as some people want to forget it, the consequences are still felt heavily. Vets are traumatized, women are widowed, people have made or lost fortunes in the war…

The ending was a bit too hurried, but the rest of the book was a solid page turner with a great sense of time and location. I learnt quite a lot about Paris one century ago, and some key scenes of the book take place close to my previous home in the Batignolles!

Michael Darin, Patchworks Parisiens (French only, 2012)

This sort of serves as a transition to another book I read in December: Patchworks Parisiens. I found this architecture book about Paris weirdest streets and buildings at the library. Balto made me realize how much I missed walking around Paris. I live less than 15 miles away from Paris city center, but with Covid it has been restricted to go that “far” from home just for fun (without proper justification), so that the last time I was in Paris was around September… Crazy!

Parisian Patchworks is part photo-book, part guide-book for a city walking tour (it is organized by theme, not by neighborhood). It shows with maps, pictures and town planning documents how architects made use of the smallest, thinnest, weirdest-shaped slices of real estate to create buildings. Where the town planners tried to improve some areas of Paris, they made attempts to enlarge some streets, or to correct blocks that had been build earlier at lower levels, or unevenly. Sometimes the architects juxtaposed mismatched styles, sometimes they tried to blend buildings together that had different historical backgrounds.

It is a wealth of miscellaneous quirky facts about some streets and buildings in every Paris neighborhood. It shows that architecture can also be full of humor! People living in Paris or visiting Paris (whenever it will be possible again!) will learn a lot about their immediate surroundings and it might help them sharpen their appreciation for the streets and buildings they walk by every day. I hope to go to Paris again soon, before another lock-down restricts those visits once more!

The One with the Secret Adoption

Jung, Babybox (French, 2018)

I still have four books from 2020 to write about, but I prefer posting about my first graphic novel of this new year (especially as it’s due back to the library on Saturday). It was a quick read, but it felt like a punch in the gut, just in the same way that deep orange color on the cover is starkly contrasting with the grey drawing.

Claire is a young first generation Korean-French who had emigrated when she was an infant. Her parents own a Korean restaurant in Paris and work hard, she has learnt very little of her native language and wear her hair red, feeling clearly more French than Korean. Her 10 year old brother is a huge fan of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, and is teased at school for being a chubby Asian with Gaelic and Scottish aspirations. Claire leads a happy life, but there’s something missing, something that her mother has nearly told her years ago but has finally decided to keep silent over.

This secret will finally break havoc into Claire’s life when the family is torn by tragedy. The parents are in a car accident, the mother dies and the father goes into a coma. Among her mother’s personal papers Claire discovers that she has been adopted. Her birth mother has abandoned her in a babybox, a contraption at the door of a Seoul orphanage, to let people give away a baby in all anonymity but without endangering the baby. Upset with her parents who have hidden the truth, lost in grief and despair, Claire feels the overwhelming need to go to Seoul to learn more about her true origins.

I really loved the story and its sensibility. I understand that the author is an adopted French-Korean and it really resonates. I met some young people in Korea who were also adopted and on the quest for their origins. The story is tragic but there’s still hope. I liked the thoughtful layout, the choice of a limited palette of black and white and poppy orangey red. But…

But, truth be told, I really didn’t like the style of the drawings! It was really tough for me to reconcile this moving story with the characters that I personally found so ugly. It’s just a matter of personal aesthetics, but it was a big drawback for a graphic novel!

The One with the Revolutionary Hangover

Jean-Christophe Portes, L’Affaire des Corps Sans Tête (French, 2015)

My husband told me that I’d enjoy this book, and for once I took it up almost at once. (Ahem, I must confess that I often put my husband’s recommendations on my TBR pile, condemning them to a long, long wait before I finally take the book). I was game for a good mystery and the historical context looked promising. I read this book in parallel with Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War 1, and the French revolution was much less dark and gloomy than the trenches.

The setting of the novel is in the middle of the French revolution, in 1791, when the first enthusiastic movements have passed and that the French population is torn between moderates who wish for a British-style constitutional monarchy and radicals who want to take the revolution further and get rid of any remaining privileges. Major events are painted in the book such as the death of super-popular Mirabeau (who was more on the moderate side), the rise of Marat who was very radical, and the flight of the king to Varennes, seeking help from other kings to reinstate his absolute power (that didn’t work, in case you’re wondering). It is nicely woven into the plot, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who wouldn’t have had a primer on French revolution beforehand.

The main character of the book is a young “gendarme”, Victor Dauterive, who comes from nobility but has fled his abusive father to choose his own path. He’s a protégé from Lafayette, who asks him to find the extremist Marat. This mission is more dangerous and politically-loaded than what he naively thought, and by asking far too many questions, Victor soon is in over his head. He’s also discovering that revolutionary heroes he admired and worshiped aren’t always so pure and nothing is easy and black and white in the aftermaths of the Bastille day. In the meantime, in several places of Paris and suburbs, headless bodies are found by the river Seine. An old man is intrigued enough to start his own investigation. It’s only a matter of time until both stories overlap, and that Victor meets the old man to join forces and seek the truth, even if it might be costly.

The book is quite a slow burner, and it gives time to the reader to discover the complexities of the Revolution, and the particular atmosphere of Paris in 1791 (food, smells, colors, clothes, we really are spoilt with details that make the setting very real). Of course, I was reminded of Jean-François Parot and the series with Nicolas Le Floch, that ended a few years before the start of the revolution (Parot died in 2018 so we’ll never know how Le Floch would survive the turmoil). This is the first book of a series, so it feels less balanced than a mature Le Floch novel. At times I felt just like poor Dauterive, that I was in over my head too with historical events, famous figures, subtle politics and conspirations. By the middle of the book, the pace picked up and I also felt more comfortable because I knew of the famous flight to Varennes.

I would enjoy to follow Dauterive into further adventures. In fact, my husband read the second novel but the book seems to have disappeared, victim of a ruthless culling. That’s the guillotine for you…

The One with the Old Young Ladies

Georges Duby, Dames du XIIe: Héloise, Aliénor, Iseut et Quelques Autres (French 1995, English 1997)

I must have slept during the lessons on the XIIth century at school, because quite frankly, I wouldn’t really name any big event happening then. It’s all muddled under the vague umbrella of Middle Ages, which is often a synonym for Those-Backwards-Times-we-care-little-about. Am I right? And I’m just talking about the French school curriculum, not even about the American curriculum…

And yet, when I hear the names of Héloise, Iseut or Aliénor, I feel that I am familiar with who they are (I probably have a teacher to thank for this bit of knowledge, but who? Sorry…). Heloise is the intellectual abbess who received love letters from Abelard, Iseut is the fictional princess for whom the knight Tristan falls, and Alienor was a powerful queen married once to the King of France and once to the King of England. But do I really know them? I know what people have told us, which means actually: what old white male have written about them, and they didn’t really look at them with loving eyes. There are no other information about them except for highly doctored accounts, and this book is no attempt at a real biography.

Georges Duby’s ambition with this thin book is to show through a few famous female figures how the male view on women pivoted in this 12th century. Before that, they were just chattel and sex objects and nothing to write (home) about. Duby explains, in a very readable way, that suddenly men have a little more time and wealth to care about other things than just war and survival, and that in this perspective they got more interested in women, their feelings and sensibility. As if we were witnessing the birth of the idea of love… Not to the point of listening to their women’s desires and respecting their opinion yet! Of course they are still supposed to obey their father, lord and husband and produce heirs…

But at that point, it became possible for a queen to be powerful or a simple merchant’s daughter to find strategies to avoid marriage (by becoming a nun…). Of course men didn’t like it and their reputation was slandered. But the fact that they existed proved that things were slowly changing. Another driving force of the 12th century was the rise of the church as an establishment that set rules for the whole of society. Marriage was one of those new rules, and monks and priests clearly defined what was possible or forbidden for a woman to do, for many centuries to come.

This book (one of my September #Unreadshelf challenge and non-fiction picks) was very interesting and I learnt so much in less than 200 pages! I’m always fearful and intimidated by big history books, but perhaps I can find some more accessible ones on some special topics. I’m particularly interested to explore French history authors like Mona Ozouf (specialized in the social history of the Revolution) and Michel Pastoureau (specialized in cultural symbols). Any other random and highly readable history books that have stuck in your memory?

The One with the Loners in the City

Patrick Modiano, Des Inconnues (1998)

At the end of the summer I suddenly wanted to read Modiano. I wish I had found Dora Bruder, his bestseller that us now taught in French high schools, but I settled for anything that looked good on the library shelf. I wanted his mellow voice, his lonely walks through Paris, his obsession about places and memories, his dreamlike narratives that refuse to explain everything.

I sure got that, but I also got more than I bargained for. This book is actually three novellas told from the point of view of young women (or older women reminiscing their youth). Only two of those are set in Paris, the third is set in Annecy, and Lyon and London are also mentioned. The common point of these 3 girls is to be nameless, adrift and lonely.

In the first story the narrator dreams of making it in Paris and suddenly, at 18, leaves her family and native Lyon to join some vague acquaintance who lives there. This woman generously welcomes her and lets her stay. She introduces the young woman to her friends and to men. This small world is vague and rather mysterious. The narrator never tries to clarify who these people are and what they’re doing. She just follows along, spends long evenings with them in restaurants, bars, apartments. She becomes the mistress of a mysterious foreigner with a fake name. The story is told years later, but the narrator doesn’t regret or judge any of this. It could have been tragedy, abuse, creepy, but Modiano is not a realist painter, he’s more of an Impressionist.

The second story is about a girl from Annecy who studies in a Catholic boarding school, because her father is dead and her mother, remarried to a stingy, bleak character, rejects her. Boarding school is terribly boring and the girl, with only vague plans for the future, is left to wonder about her mysterious father from just a few objects and clues. One weekend she doesn’t go back to school and rather takes small jobs with the help of some school friend and acquaintance. The ending is rather radical for a Modiano story, but just like the previous story, not all bows are nicely tied up at the end.

In the third story, a young woman fresh out of a breakup comes from London to Paris to house-sit for a friend. The neighborhood where she lives is on the outskirts of Paris, near a slaughterhouse for horses. The narrator develops high anxiety and panic attacks. She hardly can’t bear to stay in the neighborhood, taking refuge in a café. She regains some footing when she takes a typing job for a mysterious teacher who comes to the same café as she. The teacher introduces her to a weird sect.

It’s really hard to pinpoint why Modiano’s books are fascinating. There’s always nostalgia and some mystery. A lot happens, and not much at the same time. The narrators don’t analyze their emotions or what happens to them, they are neither particularly clever nor striking (although each of them takes a life-changing decision in the course of the story). Yet the magic is there, and we do care.

Now that this book has opened up my appetite, I probably won’t stop at just one Modiano for the season.

The One with the Chinese Hunger Revenge

Mi Jianxiu, La Diplomatie du Panda (French, 2019)

I ordered this book at the end of the lockdown, when I was limited in the choice of online retailers and had to choose from whatever titles were in stock. A Chinese mystery set in Beijing in the 1980s? I didn’t hesitate more than one second before adding it to my cart.

While I was waiting for the package to arrive, I checked out the book on Goodreads and some things rang suspicious: there was no translator listed, very few reviews and the book was listed as French. What’s the deal? I was surprised and even shocked to learn that Mi Jianxiu was actually the pseudonym of a French writer, Michel Imbert, who has traveled many times to China and had taken to write novels set in China for French readers. Needless to say, I was disappointed and deeply doubtful that it could be any good. I promised myself that I would abandon it at the first misstep (and having lived in China, I can tell if it rings false).

So, did I finish it? Yes I did, and that alone is a testament to the author’s skills and knowledge.

But what is it really about? At the beginning of the 1980s, a dead man is discovered lying in a small lane in Beijing, without any identification. The inspector called on site understands what has happened: the victim has died of hunger. A few days later, another corpse is found with the same treatment. And yet another. Who are they and how have they been kept prisoners somewhere long enough to let them die in this terrible manner? The local judge, a friend of the detective, takes an interest in the case, that take him far in time (the early 1960s, during the Great Leap Forward, where millions of people died of hunger) and in space (the judge travels to a faraway province where the victims lived in the same village in their youth).

The story was well plotted and interesting. It really reflects the atmosphere of the 1980s in China and all the characters are quite believable. There are some parts that are stretching disbelief, but they are compensated by a strong sense of place and people. It brings forth a period of Chinese history that is often overlooked. It also shows how a whole generation of Chinese people has remained silent about this tragedy, so much so that younger people have not heard about it but for a sanitized, propagandistic version taught at school. When the judge investigates in the countryside, he hires a young man to translate the local dialect for him and the young man refuses to believe what he hears from local elders.

Because cultural appropriation is such a sensitive topic right now in the United states, there’s no chance whatsoever that this book will be translated from the French to the English. It’s not a bad book at all but it remains problematic, if only by the misleading pseudonym, that made me buy the book for the wrong reasons. The deeper problem is that the topic is rarely addressed by Chinese writers, and even less in the genre of a mystery.

It made me uncomfortable that a French writer was the one to tell people widely about this Chinese trauma, but what if no Chinese writer was quite ready to take the subject? Of course there’s Qiu Xiaolong, who is a mystery writer using his plots to highlight various socio-political issues, but Qiu is in exile in the U.S. since the late 1980s and the Tiananmen aftermath. I am trying to keep current with Chinese writers translated to French and English, and to my knowledge there’s no local equivalent, probably because mysteries might address topics deemed too sensitive for the current political climate. If you know of any writer I’ve missed I’d love to hear it!