T r e a d Softly... YOU MIGHT TRIP ON TEXT

Friday, July 17, 2015

and this post. 
last week's literary review for the sunday herald (deccan herald):

Parisian war saga


Lead review

Modiano has been called the poet of the Occupation. Both these novellas (part of an Occupation trilogy) are set during the Second World War when Paris was occupied and life was on the edge — a dizzy whirl of danger, booze, languor and apathetic sex; and teetering on the middle rungs of a dubious social ladder the characters are trying to climb, not always with an idea of where they’re going or in what condition they’ll reach. The line of the law is thin and ambiguous. Prostitution, gun-running, drugs and sordid power games are the norm.

Now that he’s Nobel Laureate 2014, Modiano is accessible enough to show the world why he should be viewed as a voice to be heard beyond French literature. Aptly translated, the books could do with another stint of proofreading.

Originally published in 1969, The Night Watch is about a man who steps nimbly on both sides of the divide — the Resistance as well as the French Gestapo. Until he sort of oversteps. He is the enfant terrible of the Resistance hunted by the police, and in a Modiano overturn, is set to become his own hunter.

The book begins with a typical (now that I’ve read both the books) Modiano scene of putrid decadence, men with sunken cheeks and “puff bloated” bags under the eyes, women whose make-up “begins to crack”. Members of the police are planning a crackdown on the Resistance even as the garishly dressed bitterati around them drink, dance and flirt with vapid disenchantment.

And pathetically talk of trying to palm off their black market wares. Outside their walls, everything is scarce and expensive, life is a struggle. Listening to them, we know why. Our protagonist is already on the crest of his double game. As these men and women drag on with their sticky enjoyments, corrupt members of the Gestapo are seeking crucial names from him. Brutality meets bored promiscuity. Everything happens in the same place, the bizarre is woven into Modiano’s poetry of loss and memory. 

The narrator has sent his mother to safety in Lausanne, there’s no saying what awaits him. He plans to join her for a better life, though changing tracks at this stage doesn’t look likely. He talks of protecting two people, a red-haired giant and a “tiny little slip of a girl” (who could also be an old lady). He imagines leaving them on their own, betraying their trust. “But nothing compares to the infinite relief you feel as the body goes limp and slowly sinks. This is as true of water torture as it is of the kind of betrayal that involves abandoning someone in the night when you have promised to return.”

What’s the point of such a life? You’re neither here nor there, belong to no one, follow a relentless path of inevitability that gives you no joy at all. The true depth of existential angst! “...you have gained nothing in this life but the whirlwind you let yourself be caught up in.” He doesn’t really know the truth of people around him. Or of himself either. Is he double agent? Triple agent? There’s a trick of presenting images, facts and memories that blow away like bubbles or fade out to reappear elsewhere in barely recognisable form. The final drive through Paris is departure in many ways.

In a sense the second book, Ring Roads, balances out the overall rootlessness of the first. Here, the protagonist searches for and finds his father among a group of (once again decadent) people surviving on the ills of society, steeped in anti-Semitism, people who make use of his father, abuse him openly and would like to see him ultimately destroyed.

The son doesn’t disclose his identity but follows him like a shadow, watching as his father gets closer to people who want him destroyed. (“I cannot remember a single word we said…A father and son probably have little to say to each other.”) And this is the same father who once tried (or didn’t) to push him under a speeding train!

Nevertheless, the son is prepared to give up his life for him. When the man is beaten up, he rushes forward, disclosing his identity when he could have quietly walked away. This steadfastness is probably a given in both protagonists, though one emerges as a hero to our jaded reader’s eye because of his stated filial goal, and the other falls because of the amoral place he inhabits. 

The straightforward descriptions are sometimes more surreal than images that have you blinking through the mist. This is Modiano. He works like an illusionist only to bring you an abstract truth, to give you the essence of time, character. Morality surfaces in the most immoral soil. Happiness is never where you think it is. Vivid descriptions turn out to be the woodwork of an impermanent structure. All that you think is simple narrative in Modiano is thus grist for your imagination long after you’ve set aside the books.

The Night Watch, Ring Roads
Patrick Modiano
2015, pp 130, 146, Rs 299 each

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