Thursday, 7 January 2016

The Night Watch - Patrick Modiano

Our hero is unnamed, although he sometimes claims a name, or a father.  He is known by two codenames, Swing Troubadour and the Princesse de Lamballe, because he is a double or triple agent for opposite factions in occupied Paris - the Khedive and his collaborationist gangsters, and the Lieutenant and his Knights of the Shadow, ex-army men dedicated to resistance.  Our hero, only twenty, is an accomplished hotel thief, and theft of any kind is child's play in a Paris abandoned by anyone with anything worth stealing.  He had built himself a small fortune, commandeered a fine townhouse, and taken in a pseudo family, the blind giant Coco Lacour and the wizened child or girlish old woman Esmerelda.  They might not exist, though.  None of this may be true.  Our hero is a criminal, the putative son of the pre-war fraudster Stavisky.  Lying is his stock in trade.

He has been recruited by the Khedive and Philibert to infiltrate the Knights.  The Lieutenant orders him to infiltrate the Khedive's operation.  The Khedive orders him to lure the Lieutenant into a trap and betray him.  Our hero is torn.  He plays for time.  He tells the Khedive there is someone higher than the Lieutenant, a prize really worth taking.  His name?  The Princesse de Lamballe.

So the circles widen and become enmeshed.  And our hero continues an endless looping tour of nighttime Paris, listing the names of streets and squares and the other bizarre denizens of the demi monde like an incantation.  The colours and sounds and meaningless chatter become hallucinatory.  Perhaps he betrays the Lieutenant, perhaps he doesn't.  In the end...  Well, in the end he tries to break out of the labyrinth he has buried himself in, a final desperate bid for normality.  Does he make it?  Modiano, even in his early twenties, was far too fine a writer to offer us the security of resolution.

Certainly there were creatures like our hero in Occupied France.  He mentions some of them among the flamboyant fabrications.  The criminally-inclined who played both ends against the middle.  But what else was a young man without family or prospects supposed to do in the bizarre situation of a city that looks the same as ever but which is regularly bombed by its allies to Brits?  Life was short, the opportunities varied.

This is the essentially the question that Modiano asks.  His hero might lack a name but he doesn't lack character or, despite his best efforts, common humanity.  A superb book by the 2014 Nobel Prize winner.  Essential reading for anyone interested in modern French fiction.

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