"A lot of friends I never knew disappeared in 1945, the year of my birth." The pain of their absence can be read on Patrick Modiano's face - not on TV, where they do not invite him any more, his aphasia having given a cold sweat to the most experienced moderators, but on the front page of Le Monde, where the shy smile of the celebrated fifty-one-year-old author seems to reveal between the lines the face of Dora Bruder, a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl born in Paris in 1926, two years after the arrival of her parents in France. On 31 December 1941 Dora's parents placed an ad in the popular newspaper France Soir to inquire about their missing daughter, who had run away from her Catholic boarding school.
In 1988 Modiano read the ad in an old, faded copy of the newspaper and set up his investigation. He interviewed bureaucrats, examined archives and old pictures, called survivors who might have known Dora, and walked along the Ornano Boulevard and through the Picpus area, where Dora's school, the Saint-Coeur-de-Marie, had been located, and where Modiano himself used to go as a child with his mother and, later, as a student during the Algerian "events." He learned about the identity, the jobs, and the last known address of Dora's Austrian father, Ernest, and of her Hungarian mother, Cecile Burdej, typically "anonymous people who leave no trace behind them," and are "inseparable from the streets of Paris they lived on" but who were denied French citizenship. Modiano soon found out the dreadful reality: Dora and her parents were arrested, sent to Drancy, and then deported to Auschwitz in September of 1942.
Throughout the 150 pages of the novel and the eight years of his investigation, Modiano makes Dora more and more present by obstinately focusing on such details of her life as her daily schedule, what she was wearing on a particular day, whom she ran away with, and whether or not she was wearing the yellow star. He also wonders how she could have hidden from the police for several months in spite of curfews, or whether she managed to find a few happy moments when, at the age of fifteen, "she had the whole world against her" and could have been denounced and rounded up any time.
Dora is emblematic of exterminated youth and innocence, and Modiano lists as well the names and fragmented biographies of Raca Israelowicz, Zelie Strohlitz, Ida Levine, Claude Bloch, Marthe Nachmanowicz, and many other young women, students or employees, happy, rebellious, intelligent, ambitious, with personal goals, who were arrested by the Police of Jewish Affairs for not abiding by German regulations, using a telephone, a bicycle, a radio set, not wearing the yellow star, or having sewn a French flag trader it. Then they were sent by zealous French bureaucrats from the police depot to the camp at Les Tourelles, then to Drancy, and eventually to Auschwitz. Modiano claims to be the recipient of the letters they threw out of the freight cars that took them away or that they had left on a table at Drancy, fifty-five years ago.
Modiano's vision of the dark years differs from war narratives and Holocaust testimonies insofar as his only witnesses are "lieux de memoire," familiar streets of Paris, buildings sometimes pulled down and turned into wastelands, that still radiate "the poor and precious secrets" of the innocent lives that "the so-called occupation authorities" applied themselves to seeking out, only to send them to death. According to Modiano, it is the novelist's mission to pay close attention to the topographic details that reveal "the faint imprint" left by those who lived there before they suddenly disappeared. Onomastics, the listing of their names and biographies on the blanks of national memory, are his most convincing weapons against the unspeakable. The anthroponyms and toponyms that result from his research set his memory and imagination going. Modiano's so-called nostalgia is an impression created by the superimposition of the time of narration (1996-97) with remembrances of his youth (the 1960s) and the time of the narrative (1941-42). For instance, the blurred memory of his own trip in a police car, with his father, thirty. years ago, in times of freedom and democracy, allows him to imagine Dora's trip in the police car that took her to the police depot in times of danger, twenty-five years earlier. Then, intuition takes the relay of imagination. The novelist, endowed with a gift of clairvoyance, constructs a virtual reality punctuated with adverbs of doubt and uncertainty. Critics have repeatedly commented upon the charm, the void, the "fuzziness," the tremble of Modiano's stories.
In his first novels it was the obsessive search for an absent father or the desperate need to identify with his origins that drew Modiano to our shameful past. Dora Bruder is a tribute paid by a mature, well-established, visionary author to those who were assassinated twice: once in Auschwitz, and a second time by the bureaucrats who first minutely filled in files and records that they then cleared away to cover up their own guilt.
After thirty-five years of revelations on the darkest years in contemporary French history, Modiano still manages to arouse his reader's indignation. Dora Bruder is a peaceful, nonpolemical denunciation of those who thought that the Gaullist myth would absolve them from the shame of their cowardice. They wanted Dora to be "a blank, an unknown mass of silence." Thanks to this inspired novel, she and her fellow inmates have become a presence.
Herve Allet Vanderbilt University
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|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1998|
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