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Detective, Find Thyself

missing-person

I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop…

Published in French as Rue des Boutiques Obscures in 1978, Missing Person is a relatively early novel by Patrick Modiano, whose first book dates to 1968. Its narrator is a detective working for the Hutte Agency and we quickly learn that he himself is, in fact, the “missing person” of the title. “Hutte, as usual, sat at his massive desk, but with his coat on, so that there was really an air of departure about it. I sat opposite him, in the leather armchair we kept for clients.”

Some ten years earlier, the narrator “was struck by amnesia” and emerged as “Guy Roland,” a man with no past. But Hutte is now retiring and closing the Agency. The time has come, the narrator decides, to research his own identity, to try to flesh out his meager silhouette. Following vague memories and the slimmest of clues, the narrator starts to work backward into what he hopes is his own past. At the very heart of the book is the question – unanswered, I think – why does the narrator so desperately want to know his own history? Missing Person never lingers over this question, yet the absence of a history nags at him on nearly every page. “If I closed my eyes, I thought, if I concentrated, placing my fingers against my forehead, perhaps I could manage to hear, far off, the slap of sandals on the stairs.” He can’t even decide if the images that float through his mind are memories or illusions that he has conjured up to serve as memories.

Modiano has been quoted as saying “I always have the impression that I write the same book, which means it’s already 45 years that I’ve been writing the same book.” Like most of Modiano’s novels, Missing Person is brief – a mere 165 pages – and is focused on “the kind [of people] that leave the merest blur behind them.”

…traceless beings…who spring up out of nothing one fine day and return there, having sparked a little. Beauty queens. Gigolos. Butterflies. Most of them, even when alive, had no more substance than steam which will never condense.

In this case, however, the blur that the narrator pursues is his own. In the end, the narrator’s missing identity is simply an itch that he cannot help but scratch at. On several occasions, he is so anxious to adopt the new identity he thinks he has found for himself that he leaps into it as if it were a new suit of clothes, only to be forced to abandon it when he learns that his detective work has, in fact, led him astray. “I no longer remember if, that evening, my name was Jimmy or Pedro, Stern or McEvoy.”

Perhaps because it is one of Modiano’s early books, it doesn’t seem quite as stripped to the bone as the later books. Secondary characters are more fully fleshed out and scenes are a bit more thoroughly described. Furthermore – Mon dieu! – the narrator even leaves France to visit the French Polynesian Islands in search of his past, if only for six sketchy pages.

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.

One day, he hopes, the footsteps he hears may be his own.

 

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