It takes time for what has been erased to resurface. Traces survive in registers, and nobody knows where these registers are hidden, and who has custody of them, and whether or not these custodians are willing to let you see them. Or perhaps they have quite simply forgotten that these registers exist.
All it takes is a little patience.
…But I am a patient man. I can wait for hours in the rain…
That last little touch – “I can wait for hours in the rain” – is so typically Modiano. Here, in Dora Bruder, Modiano’s narrator is trying to assure us that he is persistent in the face of obstacles, that he is patient. And the proof he offers? “I can wait hours in the rain…” Quirky and understated.
The interrelationship between memory, time, and place is central to the books of Patrick Modiano. In the opening sentence of Dora Bruder, he quickly alludes to three separate time periods.
Eight years ago, in an old copy of Paris-Soir dated 31 December 1941, a heading on page 3 caught my eye: “From Day to Day.”
The first two time periods are not specified. Implicitly we have the “now,” the day on which the narrator begins writing this story, followed by his reference to a time eight years earlier when he happened to read a old newspaper. The third date is concrete: 31 December 1941, the actual date of the newspaper in which he read an announcement about a missing 15-year old girl named Dora Bruder. For the remaining pages of this opening chapter, the narrator spins out a series of highly personal memories from different years and different seasons, all of which are related only because they represent his very personal associations with the street where Dora Bruder lived when she went missing. None of these memories are particularly important; rather, they are exactly the kind of irrelevant moments that most memories consist of: stepping off a bus, passing a street photographer, witnessing protestors during the Algerian War, visiting a girlfriend. The narrator recalls two cafes, a jukebox, a Jaguar automobile, and a cinema. Only at the very end of the chapter does the narrator subtly return to the subject of the missing girl. The utter ordinariness of the narrator’s memories underscores the deliberately quiet tragedy of a young girl gone missing at the height of the German occupation of Paris in the midst of World War II. Terrible things happen and we remember trivial details. And yet, these mundane personal memories serve as the bridges that allow the narrator’s imagination to cross over the chasm that separates him from other people, especially someone like Dora Bruder, a woman he never met.
Dora Bruder was originally published in French in 1997.When it was first translated into English it came out under the somewhat misleading title of Search Warrant, but it has now been reissued in the same translation (by Joanna Kilmartin) under its original title. Dora Bruder was born to a pair of Jewish refugees who had independently fled their homelands for Paris in the 1920s – the father came from Vienna, the mother from Budapest. On the final day of 1941, Dora Bruder failed to return to her boarding school after a brief visit to the shabby hotel room where her parents lived nearby. Something in the old newspaper article about her disappearance spikes the interest of the narrator and he sets out to discover everything he can about the girl and her parents. The narrator goes so far as to suggest that, even long before he had ever heard of Doris Bruder, “perhaps, though not fully aware of it, I was following the traces of Doris Bruder and her parents. Already, below the surface, they were there.” Eventually, the narrator discovers Dora’s name in the register of the Drancy internment camp eight months after her disappearance. He eventually learns that Dora Bruder most likely perished in Auschwitz, as did both of her parents.
One day, the narrator of Dora Bruder goes to the movies and watches a “harmless” film called Premier rendez-vous, which was produced under the Occupation. “Suddenly,” he says:
I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation – people from all walks of life, most of whom would not have survived the war. They had been taken out of themselves after having seen this film one Saturday night, their night out. While it lasted, you forgot the war and the menacing world outside. Huddled together in the dark of the cinema, you were caught up in the flow of images on the screen, and nothing more could happen to you. And, by some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film, the lighting, the voices of the actors. That is what I had sensed, thinking of Dora Bruder and faced with the ostensibly trivial images of “Premier rendez-vous.”
Modiano is drawn to “the sort of people who leave few traces.” In part it’s a way of honoring and eulogizing ordinary lives (which often turn out to be not so ordinary upon closer inspection). His narrators love the detective work involved in tracing lives from the past by studying old directories or ferreting through bureaucracies for forgotten pieces of paper, birth certificates, internment camp registers. These “people who leave few traces” are also the kind of people who are constantly labelled by others:
He was used to being put into this or that category by the authorities and accepted it without question. Unskilled laborer. Ex-Austrian. French Legionnaire. Non-suspect. Ex-serviceman. 100% disabled. Foreign statue laborer. Jew.
But just as important, I think, is the fact that these incompletely mappable lives leave plenty of room for Modiano the novelist to fill in blank spaces. When his narrators run out of facts they speculate or they turn to history. For example, in trying to discover more about the life of Dora’s father Ernest Bruder, the narrator fails to discover what happened in the five-year gap between the day he signed up for Foreign Legion duty and his eventual discharge from service in Morocco due to disability. Modiano pours into this gap a telegraphic history of France’s military activities during the Berber uprising in its colony of Morocco in the early 1920s.
The new 2015 edition of Dora Bruder from the University of California Press contains three photographs that apparently show Dora and members of her family, along with two maps of Paris neighborhoods. These images do not appear in the earlier English-language edition, nor are they in the original French publication. (Apparently the photographs also appear in Japanese translations.) What led Modiano to add the photographs and maps, which he seems to have had in his possession at the time when the book was written? There are a handful of scholarly essays online that address the question of photographs in Dora Bruder; unfortunately, most are behind paywalls. But in a 2006 lecture on Modiano given by Harvard’s Susan Rubin Suleiman that is available online, Suleiman tells us that during the writing of Dora Bruder, Modiano was in correspondence with the scholar Serge Klarsfield, whose 1995 book Le Mémorial des enfants juifs déportés de France documented the transportation of children to internment camps. “Klarsfeld,” she says, “provided [Modiano] with photographs of Dora and her parents as well as other information.”
In the book, Modiano’s narrator describes at some length a number of photographs of Dora and her family, several of which are not reproduced. He sticks to the visual facts – or the questions raised by the visual evidence – and never interprets or analyzes the individuals depicted. Modiano seems to repeatedly draw a clear line between facts and speculation.
A photograph of Dora, surely taken after a special school assembly. She is aged twelve or thereabouts and wears a white dress and ankle socks. She holds a book in her right hand. Her hair is crowned by a circlet of what appear to be white flowers. Her left hand rests on the edge of an enormous white cube patterned with rows of black geometric motifs, clearly a studio prop. Another photograph, taken in the same place at the same period, perhaps on the same day: the floor tiles are recognizable, as is the big white cube with black geometric motifs on which Cécile Bruder is perched. Dora stands on her left, in a high-necked dress, her left arm bent across her body so as to place her hand on her mother’s shoulder.