Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne starts with recalling a nighttime collision between a sea-green Fiat and the quiet, loner narrator who is crossing Place des Pyramides. The car snagged the man’s leg, careened through an arcade, and then, when the beautiful blonde driver stumbled out of the car, she and the narrator were herded into the back of a police car by a bulky, silent man. The ride to the station floods the narrator with similar memories of past experiences as the friendly blonde driver continues to give him familiar smiles and squeeze his hand comfortably. Soon, however, the man’s memory becomes saturated with the smell of ether, and he remembers only vague wisps of the rest of the incident. He wakes up some time later and finds himself in a strange hospital called Mirabeau Clinic. He’s given only an envelope of cash and a lame incident report to satisfy his confusion and is pushed out the doors of the clinic without another word.
And so begins the mystery. The narrator becomes absorbed with finding the blonde woman, the silent man, and figuring out what exactly happened that night on Place des Pyramides. His interest and curiosity in solving the mystery quickly turn into a stubborn obsession and a profound paranoia, leading him to manipulate his own memories and start to create connections between distinct events in his life. He even starts questioning his own remembrances, wondering how the blonde woman from the accident had become associated with his childhood. He fabricates links between this accident and a car accident he experienced in his childhood, the silent man involved presently and his distant father who disappeared from his life, and his intense life-long feelings of loneliness present on both occasions. It’s as if the narrator is searching for some grand conspiracy that has secretly wrapped him up. His profound introspection and constant questioning lead the audience to trust his hunch and believe in the mysterious scheme as well.
Modiano gives us very little plot development, focusing instead of the narrator’s memory. His dreamy, elegant writing style transports the reader into the mind of the narrator – almost as if we are searching through our own minds to connect memories that we do not possess. The narrator admits multiple times to the haziness of his thoughts, saying, “Everything about the period before the accident is confused in my memory” (53), which, instead of making him more suspicious, actually made him more trustworthy to me. The narrator, although melancholy, is simple and easily likable, and I soon found myself beginning to share the narrator’s intoxicating paranoia and was easily sucked into the thrill of the chase that is Paris Nocturne.
The theme of memory throughout Paris Nocturne couples well with Modiano’s play with time. The narrator recounts various events in his life from almost 40 years ago – a time jump that the audience doesn’t learn about until almost the end of the book. I constantly found myself questioning the chronology of the narrator’s memories as his only real time stamp hinges upon the car accident in the beginning. He speaks of time only in terms of before and after the accident, which he often muddles up with the previous accident from his childhood, often leaving the audience unsure of when things actually took place. By the end of the book, I was unsure whether the narrator was still in the past or the present, a daze he expressed as well. One night as he is walking down a street that resembles something familiar, he says, “All I have to do is walk along this road to realize that the past is gone for good, without really knowing which present I exist in” (74). The haunting potentiality of past, present, and future cloud his consciousness as well as our own, drawing the audience closer still to the narrator.
The further I read, and the deeper I fell into the narrator’s delusions, the more I began to expect with him some great reveal at the end. As I had two pages left and still little had been resolved, I flew through the sentences as the narrator rushed through his own actions, both searching for the satisfying resolution to this madness that had captivated me for 148 pages and him for over 30 years–a stunning and thought-provoking book.
Yale University Press