What is possible when the missing person you seek is you? Where are the clues that will lead you to yourself? Only in the past. The past, for the protagonist of Patrick Modiano’s novel Missing Person, is the period of the German occupation of Paris prior to and during World War II. It is a past of which, when the novel opens, he remembers nothing. He suffers from near total amnesia., He has lived a decade as a private detective, solving other people’s mysteries, under an identity provided by his boss. He is Guy Roland. As the novel opens, his boss retires and closes the agency, and Roland begins to investigate his own identity. “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the cafe terrace, waiting for the rain to stop; the shower had started when Hutte left me.”
And so begins the journey from nothing to something. The novel projects the irony of the detective searching for himself. All those he meets know him, but he knows none of them. His memory begins to return in bits and pieces, brief snatches of the past. And he discovers at the heart of his search for himself a dark secret, gradually revealed. His role in the disappearance of someone very close to him.
Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Missing Person is an early novel (1978), but it embodies the themes for which Modiano has become known—the power of the past and the search for identity. The prose in this short novel (under 200 pages), while exploring these themes, exhibits his beautifully crafted style and his haunting, melancholy tone.
His protagonist says, “I believe that the entrance-halls of buildings still retain the echo of footsteps of those who used to cross them and who have since vanished. Something continues to vibrate after they have gone, fading waves, but which can still be picked up if one listens carefully. . . [I omit a phrase here to avoid a spoiler.] . . . I was nothing, but waves passed through me, sometimes faint, sometimes stronger, and all these scattered echoes afloat in the air crystallized and there I was.”
I loved reading this novel, like slowly eating a perfect lasagna, or ravioli, with a glass of good Cabernet. You chew each bite slowly and savor it. I would have liked to give Missing Person an unqualified 5-Star rating, but when I got down to that last bite, I found it beautiful but unsatisfying. The tone of the short final chapter is exquisite, and the final two sentences are stunning. But alas the resolution of the story was left open-ended, and I confess I felt betrayed.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone who loves finely crafted style in literature and the deep exploration of human identity. Those looking for high action will be disappointed.