I don’t remember exactly where I read that this book was considered one of Modiano’s best, on par with Dora Bruder. I’m not always in agreement with these ratings but here I totally agree! It also won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the most prestigious book prize in France. I’m at this stage where I enjoy reading more and more by the same authors, to contrast and compare, and Modiano is particularly adapted to this approach, as his favorite themes are the traces of memories.
Contrary to other of his books where we’re not sure if it’s fiction or non-fiction, this book is a story told by his fictional narrator Guy Roland. We follow Roland in search of his own past and his own identity. A victim of amnesia, Roland was employed in a PI agency in Paris but when his boss retires, he turns his investigation skills towards himself.
The beginning is quite vague, as Roland only follows intuitions (for lack of any concrete lead) and ends up following the guests at a Russian wedding in Paris. He stares at names, at faces in old photos, every time wondering: is it me? what if it was me? Or someone who knows me? The approach is puzzling to the reader too, as we get a bit lost among those names and addresses. Roland meets people and gets vague answers that then take him to new people and new hypothesis. At moments it seems to be getting nowhere, but it actually creates a memory landscape by accumulation of details.
About halfway through we start to see people and circumstances emerge from the fog. It has to do with the war (the second world War in France, the Nazi occupation and the persecution of Jews and foreigners). No wonder people might have had several identities, changing addresses and jobs, making dubious answers or ignoring what happened to their friends.
It is probably easier to read than other Modiano books because it’s a mystery of sorts, with a PI, a quest, leads and red herrings, but it opens up on the reconstruction of a certain wartime atmosphere, and at its widest it even interrogates memory itself, what is left behind after a person or a place has disappeared. It has the trademark Modiano melancholy and style, and more of something approaching a resolution than his other books.
A very interesting analysis of the book (in French, but on Youtube) can be found here