First published as Rue des boutiques obscures, Paris, Editions Gallimard, September 1978
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After eight years as assistant to Private Investigator Hutte, who is now taking his retirement, Guy Roland can undertake the investigation of his own past. Suffering from severe amnesia, Roland was once Hutte's client, named and trained by the man, and finding himself with no specific purpose, he takes on the task of discovering his identity.
Roland's past is set in occupied Paris of the 1940s, and is weighted with paranoia, persecution and an overwhelming sense of melancholy. His life is a collection of fragments that cannot form a cohesive whole, and there is no satisfying link between the man he was and the person he is now. Jumping from identity to identity, when we are finally satisfied with who he was once was, it turns out that person might also have been on a borrowed identity. Indeed, no character is fully him or herself, since in the midst of occupied Paris most people lived on false papers. Even now, in the 1960s, paranoia is still rampant, and the people Roland interviews have only vague recollections of their own pasts.
The translated title Missing Person refers to the narrator, a man in search of a missing self. The original French title, Rue des boutiques obscures, is named after a street in Rome, and a literal translation can be The Street of Gloomy Shops (or Dark Shops, etc.). Identity was a commodity in 1940s Paris as we learn that the supposed Roland of that time sold passports to foreigners stuck in the city. In the present day, however, identity is seemingly no longer in crisis, yet the city is filled with the people of that time, and Roland is stranded as he is unable to regain his original self nor take on a new one. The novel's emphasis on its urban landscape is itself handled gloomily, Modiano taking us through much of Paris on foot, pointing out its streets and dark, concrete surfaces.
Stories of amnesiacs abound, but the solid writing, atmosphere and thematic considerations makes this among the stronger ones I have encountered. The ambiguous ending is not a let-down, and we do learn at some point the tragic cause of Roland's amnesia, which is tragedy indeed. The novel received the prestigious national Prix Goncourt prize.