The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 1 February 2017

The Occupation Trilogy

La Place de l'Étoile

by Patrick Modiano

There are few things as culturally complicated as collaboration with the Nazis before and during World War 2. Across Europe, peoples were placed into the position of resisting at the peril of their lives, collaboration at the peril of being branded traitors, or mere aquiescence or flight. (This story has troubling echoes in today's political climate in the USA and elsewhere.) More complicated, puzzling and disturbing is the position of European Jews who collaborated with the Nazis in the notorious mass murder of their own people. In his first novel, Patrick Modiano lays bare some of the raw experience and complex of cultural emotion that surrounds this problem. He was born just after the war, and into a French culture that has long struggled with this dark period in its history.

We meet Raphaël Schlemilovitch, purported Jewish Nazi collaborator, who embarks on a long surreal screed that conflates French Jewish cultural history with the Nazi occupation of France. What results is something like taking literary history and passing it through a meat grinder. The scores of references to French authors, artists and German political figures, would take any attentive reader a month to fully explore, especially if one is not already up to speed on this history. There are obscure references, and, of course, notes on more famous figures, particularly such as Marcel Proust and painter Modigliani. Even the pages of end notes, while they help, cannot hope to cover the ground Modiano covers in this short novel. What is more, the narrative is impressionistic. Our unreliable narrator is followed in first, second and third person. He leaps forward and backward in time, sometimes within a single paragraph. Curiously, the effect is actually rather engaging and, despite the dark material, sardonically humorous. Still, Modiano is exorcising some serious demons of art and history. The story is bookended in such a way as to suggest the narrator is simply insane, but, really, so is history itself. This is a complex, mercifully short, oddly absorbing, dark and confusing novel. And yet, it is rich with an unrelenting questioning, a brave confrontation, and a provocation. Strange and powerful stuff.

The Night Watch

by Patrick Modiano

Ring Roads

by Patrick Modiano

(Patrick Modiano was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature.)

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