One never really forgets

Published July 31, 2016
A view of the city of Paris.— AFP
A view of the city of Paris.— AFP

“It felt like a dream. This often happened in that period of my life, especially after nightfall. Exhaustion? Or that strange, overpowering sensation of déjà vu, also due to lack of sleep? Everything gets jumbled in your mind, past, present and future; everything is superimposed.”

The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano is the story of a writer on a quest to understand his past decades; Jean is trying to comprehend what happened to the woman he loved a long time ago. His companion on this journey, which is as much for his love as for himself, is his old black notebook.

For Jean, the events of the past and his present interpretations of them are all part of a bigger narrative, “episodes in a timeless, idealised life, which I wrest page by page from my drab current existence to give it some light and shadow”. He repeatedly reminds himself that “no, it wasn’t a dream. The proof is that I still have this black notebook full of my jottings.” Self-doubts often seep into Jean’s narrative, making it hard for him to look at time from a linear perspective.

His notebook offers him discreet passage into the past, as if he’s slipping into a dimly-lit room through a half-opened door, only to get accustomed to the darkness and see the room in an unfamiliar guise.

Patrick Modiano has his protagonist walk the tortuous lanes of his memories, and the cobbled paths of Paris, to untangle his past

Just like his notebook which is filled with information ranging from names, telephone numbers, appointments and short texts from literature, it’s hard to categorise The Black Notebook; open any chapter at random and you have an elegant piece of prose that you’ll immediately fall in love with. Or read the book from cover to cover for a deeply satisfying reading experience without being able to precisely bracket the novel into one or two genres.

The novel narrates how, in the Cite Universitaire cafeteria in the Paris of 1960s, Jean meets Dannie who is living in a room in the American Pavilion despite the fact that she is neither American nor a student. It is through her that he discovers the Unic Hotel where “a menace hovered over everything, giving life a peculiar colouration.” He also becomes acquainted with a group of shady people, known as Aghamouri, Duwelz, Gerard Marciano, and “Georges”, who frequents that place. “The Unic Hotel was the rendezvous for certain Moroccans and the Frenchmen who were ‘in business’ with them”. Aghamouri was born in Casablanca. Danny, too, had ties with Morocco. The political, however, is not the focus of Modiano’s story. For him, history — whether of a person or a place — is more important.

For a while, Jean and Dannie frequent a country house whose location he no longer remembers, which gives an unfixed and doubtable colour to the past. He loses his old manuscript in that house, a loss about which he felt terrible at that time. However, he admits that if he hadn’t lost that manuscript he might not be writing this book now: “Once again I’m filling pages, with the same kind of pen and the same handwriting, consulting the jottings in my old black notebook as I did before. It has taken me almost an entire lifetime to return to my point of departure.”

One day, Aghamouri warns him about Dannie who had done “something pretty serious” and was “involved in a nasty incident”. His older self finds it hard to reconcile with the way his younger self handled these events in the past and is frustrated by the lack of detail in the pages of his black notebook. Although he initially dismisses all of this as a youthful unconcern, when he reads “certain words, certain phrases, certain indications,” it seems to him that he was sending out coded signals to the future.

When Dannie disappears, he is interrogated by the police about his connection with her and the Unic Hotel gang. He wasn’t in any serious danger but it took him years to realise that. He realises that he didn’t really know any of those people; he only saw them from a distance. Even in the past, he observed them with the discreet interest of a writer or an artist analysing his subject: “It seems to me that back then I saw them all as if they were behind the glass partition of an aquarium, and that glass stood between them and me”.

Dannie’s is a hazy character shrouded in a mysterious glow. All we know about her is that she was trying to run away from something possibly criminal in her past which forced her to change her identity, that she rarely divulged precise details about herself, and that she loved drinking Cointreau.

The Black Notebook has an atmospheric quality so strong that even the protagonist Jean finds it dreamlike, often uncertain if things actually happened. He retraces his steps in the streets and places he frequented but finds them unrecognisable. Part of the pleasure of reading The Black Notebook is that it is not just about the characters in the story and their fates, but the history of old Paris neighbourhoods as well.

Nonetheless, Jean is obsessed “with what had occupied a given location in Paris, over successive layers of time”. In a way, Jean is a prisoner of his memories of the Paris of old and the people he met there. Whether it is because “one never forgets the faces of people one meets at a difficult time in one’s life” or because as a writer he lives in a different time-space continuum, and for him, “there has never been a present or a past.” Memory, it appears, is the real subject here. The places you visited may fade, the people you knew may disappear but they remain intact in your memories, a fact that Jean finds troubling yet satisfying.

The novel has a unique, unfinished feel to it; the story does not follow a chronological order but reads like a random yet eloquent collage of events and people. The prose is simple and effortlessly fluent, and the characters seem to be half-done yet powerfully sketched. At 157 pages, The Black Notebook is a short but intense read which would be as enjoyable to those unfamiliar with Modiano as to his dedicated readers.

The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic.

The Black Notebook
By Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)
Maclehouse Press London
ISBN: 978-0857054890

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 31st, 2016



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