Thursday, April 24, 2014

Patrick Modiano, Missing Person (1978)

Modiano, Patrick, Missing Person, translated by Daniel Weissbort, London: Jonathan Cape, 1980
First published as Rue des boutiques obscures, Paris, Editions Gallimard, September 1978

Missing Person at Goodreads
Missing Person at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

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.

Friday, April 11, 2014

aside: Hard copy of Shimmer 16

Recently I received an email requesting a copy of Shimmer #16. Because I collect periodicals and because I like to keep a copy of anything I review, I am not willing to give mine up. The issue is sold out over at shimmerzine and other than suggesting The Book Depository and other online vendors, I am absolutely of no help.

Anyone with any ideas on how to obtain a copy, or willing to part with their copy, feel free to drop me an email.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Stefan Kiesbye, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone (2011)

Kiesbye, Stefan, Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, Penguin Books, 2011

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at Goodreads
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at IBList
Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone at ISFdb

Rating: 7/10

The striking title of Germany-born Kiesbye's novel brings immediately to mind and ear the great Tom Waits song "Jockey Full of Bourbon." Yet the title actually references the English nursery rhyme "Ladybug Ladybug" which was eventually Americanized as "Ladybird Ladybird," and the slight differences between the original and the American are reflected in the differences between Waits's lyrics and Keisbye's title (namely "Your Children All/Are Gone").

Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is a book made up not of interrelated short stories, but instead of interrelated episodes. A few of the episodes can be read as stand-alone stories, but as we move further into the work, the reader relies on knowledge of character relations and previous information to piece some puzzles together, such as the mystery of the mad woman raving about missing children. Many of the stories do not read like the modern short story, and the book fits nicely into that limbo between novel and short story collection.

Like a novel it deals with specific themes, utilizes multiple characters, maintains tone and elemental focus, yet is lacking in a defined plot, overarching resolution or any Aristotelian idea of a unified poetic work. The book cannot accurately be described as a collection of interrelated stories since, in the traditional modern sense, most of these chapters are not proper short stories. Some stories overlap too much into others, and many important character elements are incorporated into a tale via another story. We rely too much on the whole to understand each individual part. Instead, as the title implies, the episodes function not in the way a modern story would function, but rather in the way a fairy tale might. There is a simplicity of structure and authorial freedom in these tales of cannibalism, incest, patricide, rape, and so forth, while the complexities lie not in the parts but in the whole.

Each story is told through the point of view of one of five townsfolk, grown up now but telling of the years spanning childhood into teens. The narratives are for the most part distant and unaffected, no matter of the horrible incidents the narrators are recalling. The voices are similar, but the women are more sympathetic, and their narratives are thereby more involved since they maintain an emotional component that is lacking in the tales of the men. This lacking is not a bad thing, however, but striking, as we read, for example, a matter-of-fact retelling of the cold innocent killing of a sister.

A series of tragedies delivered in a matter-of-fact tone. The distance works well in creating tragedy without melodrama, and unlikable characters without judgement. Unique and powerful, I look forward to Kiesbye's follow-up.

The stories are broken up by their narrator's names, and are as follows:

The four remaining childhood friends meet for the funeral of the fifth. Told through Christian's point of view.

The annual Thanksgiving cooking competition, when Martin's mother takes on the town's baker. Humour with a shocking, Shirley Jackson-inspired resolution. A striking introduction to the nature of this isolated post-war town. A great lead-in chapter as it does well not only in introducing the town, but in implicating the townsfolk in a horrible crime.

At the visiting carnival Christian meets a man he believes is the devil, and who promises him a visit to hell if he brings him his sister's soul.

Linde's father is in love with his fellow gardener, a young mother who cares for her bastard son, while the town women speak ill of her, believing she is trying to steal their men. In this one, genuine sympathy for the characters elevates the tragedy.

With his eldest sister pregnant and the culprit's identity suddenly clear to him, Christian seeks vengeance.

While out skating the boys bet Holder fifty marks to retrieve an axe from the icy river. There is something truly sadistic to this one, and I felt more affected here than with most, though it's not the strongest of chapters. This event is an important one, shaping some of what is to follow. The mean-spirited Alex, heir to the town pub, the only non-narrator who attends the prologue funeral, is introduced and returns with his streak of mistreating others.

At the town's influential Manor House, Linde meets a child-like man who seems to live in the garden maze. Strong character descriptions, and an episode that again reveals the nature of the town rather than its selctive characters. The Manor House is a prevalent place and symbol of leisure and success for the town and its people.

Youthful sex games at the old mill lead to Bernhard getting lost. Evokes ghosts but no ghosts dwell, I found this episode to be on the weaker side.

Linde arranges a revenge performance on the town apothecary who once caught her stealing, and we are introduced to the town's mad woman.

Continuing from the previous tale, this once reveals the mystery of the mad woman's ravings.

Anke and Linde enter the Manor House as the latter interviews for a scholarship. Tragedy ensues and one friend betrays the other.

Befriends her sickly neighbour, which delivers additional tragedy to the occupants of the Manor House.

Alex's brother Olaf returns from the sea to take up his life and his abandoned wife. Family secrets and a strong sequence that works well on its own, despite the references to other characters and episodes.

Alex, now chauffeur at the Manor House, appears at Anke's who desires nothing other than to be the mistress of the manor.

The discovery of a ghost town just outside Hemmersmoor.


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