Monday, 21 September 2015

Gradual revelations define the style of Patrick Modiano

Full title: The Night Watch
Author: Patrick Modiano, translated by Patricia Wolf, revised by Frank Wynne
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 130 pages, paperback
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The hero of The Night Watch is a young man who has to deal with a fundamental dilemma: to work for the French Gestapo or for the Resistance? He is in a dilemma because he has been offered both options and he’s taken both, each for its separate advantages: on the one hand the pecuniary gains of a life among criminals, on the other hand the chance to become a hero. So he spends a lot of time tossing the options in search for the right answer, and although the right answer doesn’t quite arrive, at least his evolution means something. It means a kind of awakening.
But Modiano doesn’t make things easy. In order to arrive at the conclusion one needs to follow the winding path of the narrator’s own tosses and turns. Modiano’s trademark technique is a slow revealing of essential details. We start off with a narrator in a moral slum. We find no difficulty in not liking him. He’s a textbook petty criminal turned traitor. He’s well aware of his condition but doesn’t seem to be bothered by the nature of his various lucrative, if despicable, jobs. At this stage in the novel he doesn’t even seem resigned. He simply notes down self-observations as if they were notes in a log book:
“Night was drawing in, but my job as informant and blackmailer has accustomed me to darkness.”
Nicknamed ‘The Swing Troubadour’ (after Charles Trenet?) the young man is employed as part of a hoard of former convicts to act as the underground wing of the French Gestapo. It is much later that we find out his motivation: coming from a poor family, he’s been lured by the easy money he could make in the criminal branch. As a result, his morality is simple and aimed exclusively at personal gain.
“It was in the pawnshop on the Rue Pierre Charron (my mother would often go there, but they always refused to take her paste jewellery) that I decide once and for all that poverty was pain in the arse. You might think I have no principles. I started out a poor and innocent soul. But innocence gets lost along the way.”
Here one can already perceive the seeds of self-awareness. But as he grows accustomed to the voice of testimony, ‘The Swing Troubadour’ also gets to the point where he can declare with laudable sincerity the true psychological mechanism behind his actions:
“There is only one emotion of which I have firsthand knowledge, one powerful enough to make me move mountains: FEAR.”
Slowly, slowly, the young man becomes conscious at least of the dubious nature of his profession. Even if he rejects it for a length of time, and even if he cannot find the will to leave the band of bastards who are providing him with the luxury otherwise forever unavailable to him, ‘The Swing Troubadour’ is uncomfortable as a criminal.

Patrick Modiano. Source: The Telegraph
But, as already mentioned above, to reach this stage one needs to read the novel in its peculiar manipulation of chronology. The narrative voice moves back and forth within a relatively tight chronotope, but one generous enough to permit chronological arabesques. Not only does the narrator relate events that didn’t occur in a straight line, he also includes real characters and situations from times that don’t coincide with the narrative’s zero time. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century personages and their deeds (mostly criminal) are mixed with contemporary episodes, in an urban landscape that seems to level all differences and make these cross-chronological encounters possible. All this might sound like an exercise in the universalisation of criminality, maybe in the fashion of Borges’s History of Infamy, although the parallel must not be stretched too far.
Modiano’s narrative oddity appears to be facilitated by the general setting of the novel: Paris. A city with multiple layers of history and mentality, it distributes past and present in ways that make them seem to coincide. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century criminals and WW2 serial killers are brought together, sad apparitions in a tableau of sad colours, described in a future that is outside of the novel’s present-tense narration.
“There are ghosts here, but only those of Monsieur Philibert, the Khedive, and their acolytes. Stepping out of Claridge, arm in arm, come Joanovici and the Count de Cagliostro. They are wearing white suits and platinum signet rings. The shy young man crossing the Rue Lord-Byron is Eugene Weidemann. Standing frozen in front of Pam-Pam is Thérèse de Païva, the most beautiful whore of the Second Empire. From the corner of the Rue Marbeuf, Dr Petiot smiles at me. On the terrace of Le Colisée: a group of black marketeers are cracking open the champagne.”
This passage indicates yet another aspect of the novel: the rapid move between locations. There are numerous moments when the narrator limits the story to a listing of places. As the protagonist moves, the locations too reveal themselves, as if what one is reading were not a novel but the representation of a map of Paris. The progression of the story is thus made to imitate the progression of an urban traveller, a flâneur or picaro who, like Moll Flanders in the eighteenth century, are led forward by the trajectories of their criminal pursuits.
Surrounded by depravity and petty interests, ‘The Swing Troubadour’ has to find his own way through the labyrinth that leads to decency. It takes a different kind of awakening to bring him to the realization that he might have a better role to play in life. And that is the moment when he is employed to infiltrate a Resistance cell. It is now that a profound transformation takes place. As he starts spying on the cell, the protagonist learns to admire their heroic determination, their rectitude, and their friendship. The transformation is substantial. He is given a new name (the curiously feminine ‘Princess of Lamballe’), welcomed, trusted, asked to spy back on the Gestapo. And that’s when the young man seems to crack under the weight of the dilemma.
“Two groups of lunatics were pressuring me to do contradictory things, they would run me down until I dropped dead from exhaustion. I was a scapegoat for these madmen. I was the runt of the litter. I didn’t stand a chance.”
This dilemma keeps him on edge for the rest of the novel. But the end doesn’t bring concrete relief to him. Only reassurance to the reader that the right shape of things is about to be brought to light. The Resistance cell is gunned down and Lamballe’s double game discovered. Then everything ends in a hot pursuit, the young man driving a car towards the Swiss border, with enough cash to start a new life, but weighed down by an apocalyptic tiredness. We never know if he’s made it. Modiano stops his game of slow revelations and leaves everything on a cliff-hanger. To make things more interesting but also, perhaps, to relativise the trope of the converted criminal.