I first became aware of Patrick Modiano, the French writer, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. I learned that he had an extensive and serious body of work and had won many literary prizes, including the Prix Goncourt in 1978 for this book, Missing Person. I read that this was considered perhaps his seminal work on the exploration of identity and so it seemed a good place to make his acquaintance.
I must confess I found my introduction confusing in the extreme. The story was quite difficult to follow. In the last chapters, the author finally brought all the facts together and it began to make sense but I spent much of my time in reading the book in a fog. That may have been the writer's intent.
On one level, this is a detective story; the protagonist and reader decipher and follow the clues, trying to resolve the mystery. The difference is that the mystery here is the identity of the protagonist.
The time is 1965 and the protagonist who is known as Guy Roland has been suffering from amnesia since sometime in the Occupation of France in World War II. He doesn't know who he is or anything about his history. His name and current identity were given to him by a private detective who tried to help him investigate his past. When he was unable to discover his true identity, he gave his client a new one. Then he gave him a job and for several years Guy Roland worked as a detective.
Finally, his boss has retired and has turned all of his reference books and records over to Guy. Now, he has decided to take another crack at finding out who he really is.
Modiano's descriptions of people and places and atmosphere were the best thing about the book for me. He is just superb at setting the stage and making one see and feel the mise en scène.
In nearly all of those settings, fog, or sometimes snow or rain, plays a part, reducing visibility and making one struggle to orient oneself and find a way through the terrain. The protagonist is constantly disoriented and so is the reader. But wasn't it brilliant of the author to make us feel that experience?
So, what is the self? Where does it reside? Is it constructed of our past experiences, and if we forget those, do we lose ourselves? Or is it simply something innate that is always with us, regardless of our experiences? Is it a construct of the present, something that is renewed day by day? Or perhaps it is a combination of all that and more. These are the questions that Modiano considers and that he wants us to think about.
When I started writing this review, I had mentally assigned the book a three-star rating, but as I've been forced to think more about it as I write, I have to change that to four stars. Even though on some level I found the book annoying and confusing, I think the writer succeeded magnificently in his objective.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars