Missing Person. Who are we? Smoke, perhaps. Patrick Modiano takes on this question in vague metaphor of how we determine our identity — slices of memory pieced together to reconstruct, perhaps construct ourselves.
Here we have the main character who has lost most of his memory and, having worked in a private detective firm to support himself for the last few years, uses those skills to find himself. The world to him and to us is vague and uncertain. He emerges from time to time from the fog of amnesia to recognize something clear enough to warrant continuing his quest, a quest remarkably without passion even in moments of a significant discovery. The author reveals mood in a way a painter might if he or she could hide brushstrokes. The problem for me is that while what he accomplishes seems like narrative magic, I remained uncurious about what he was hiding. It was brilliance without light, without movement. Without motivation.
However, I fear this is my problem, not his. He won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. And this book, in particular, won the Prix Goncourt. All I’ve ever won was a Kodak camera and some flashbulbs for getting a number of non subscribers on my newspaper paper route to sign up for a subscription to a late afternoon edition. There are opinions and there are opinions.
What I did like about Missing Person and its lack of specific meaning (for me) is that it teased my imagination, stimulated my already overworked speculative nature. There is, of course, the simple plot of a private eye searching for himself. Other than the premise being ironic, what is there?
Answer: what we all do much of the time? At any age, recollecting and revaluating our friends, understanding relationships in new ways from a constantly changing perspective. While I may remember and perhaps analyze an event that occurred when I was 11, I may have misplaced memories of many events that preceded it and many that followed. At another time that one event I remembered earlier may slip back into the shadows, perhaps forever. Am I still the same person?
Now I am 70, and in a very literal way I have spent months putting down events of my life, but not only mine, but the lives of my parents and theirs, searching for some meaning in all of that. If we remember only this or that, then we are that person. If we remember other thises and thats, then that’s who remains. And if we forget?
In Missing Person, it seems to me, the detective could have just gone on to live his life with a forshortened past and had more interesting times with the years he had left. It’s a decision that we might always be on the verge of making.