Book Review: Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano / The Search Warrant trans Joanna Kilmartin

Patrick Modiano was not particularly well known in what the French call ‘ Anglo-Saxon’ literary circles until he won the 2014 Nobel Prize for LIterature. In fact much of the coverage in the British press made me chuckle as the suggestion seemed to be that as very few of his works have been translated into English, he was a less than worthy winner.

Following his win , almost every bookshop in France has a table displaying his works and during a recent visit I picked up and read Dora Bruder, one of the few already translated into English, although re titled The Search Warrant for reasons I don’t really understand.

Modiano’s own father was Jewish and led a precarious existence during the Occupation, living clandestinely ( refusing to wear the star) and trading on the Black Market. Modiano’s early work La Place de l’Etoile told the story of a Jewish collaborator and led to a final rupture between the pair.

Dora Bruder covers much of Modiano’s familiar territory – the Occupation and the moral dilemmas it posed; memory and forgetting ; what is lost and what is saved. The Nobel Prize committee announced that Modiano had won the prize  for

.. the art of memory with which he has evoked the most unspeakable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation.

His starting point for the book was  a missing persons advert he came across in a 1941 copy of Paris Soir seeking the whereabouts of a 15 year old girl, Dora Bruder, who had run away from home. He seeks to fill in Dora’s story and whilst doing so he recounts much of the sad story of the Jews of Paris and their struggle to survive. He revisits his own relationship with his father and walks the streets of the city looking for traces of the life Dora lived.

,Dora comes to life again during this short novella. His prose is simple and understated yet beautiful, especially in French.He recalls a quote from Jean Genet’s Miracle de la Rose  which evoke’s Dora’s speaking voice for him.

“What the child taught me was that the true roots of Parisian slang lie in its sad tenderness”. This phrase evokes Dora Bruder so well for me that I feel I knew her. The children with Polish or Russian or Romanian names who were forced to wear the yellow star were so Parisian that they merged effortlessly into the façades, the apartment blocks, the pavements, the infinite shades of grey which belong to Paris alone. Like Dora Bruder, they all spoke with the Parisian accent, using a slang whose sad tenderness Jean Genet had recognised.

In the course of his research it becomes clear that Dora ran away from home several times. She did return to her mother’s care following the advert but by then her father was already detained in Drancy, a holding camp on the outskirts of Paris, awaiting transportation to Auschwitz.

Dora ran away one final time before being re-arrested and taken to Drancy where she left on the same transport for Auschwitz as her father. Modiano is unable to discover what impelled her to run away and what she did in her months of hiding.

I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when she escaped for a second time. Thi is her secret. A poor and precious secret which not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Dêpôt, the barracks, the camps, history, time – everything that corrupts and destroys you- have been able to take away from her.

After reading the book, I visited the Mémorial de la Shoah, the Holocaust museum in the Marais district of Paris.. As you leave the museum there is a Wall of Remembrance on which there is engraved for each year of the Occupation the name of every Jew deported from France. A moving visit was made even more emotional by seeing Dora’s name carved next to that of her father Ernest for 1942.

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My Top Five Books of 2013

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These are my recommended reads from this year…….five , in no particular order , and then 3 more I really enjoyed but Top Eight didn’t seem a catchy enough title!

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1.The Goldfinch  by Donna Tartt

I have already reviewed it here on my blog . We follow the adventures of Theo Decker from childhood to adulthood accompanied by The Goldfinch, a painting recovered from a bomb attack , his talisman and his curse.

2. The Luminaries   by Eleanor Catton

Another slab of a book that I have already reviewed here.

Deserved winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize,  this is a murder mystery with a Victorian feel and an astrological structure.

3. Americanah  by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

A searingly honest account of the search for identity of two young people. Told in narrative style but also through blog posts, Ifem and Obinze journey from Nigeria to the US and London . Both have experiences that cause them to confront their  perceptions of  themselves as well as other people’s preconceptions of them as Africans. Whilst they are away, Nigeria is changing and they both return to a country very different to the one they left. Above all, however, this is a love story.

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4, A Tale For The Time Being  by Ruth Ozeki

This was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. It tells the stories of Ruth,a Canadian writer,  and a teenage Japanese girl, Nao ,whose diary Ruth finds washed up on the shores near her home in the aftermath of the Tsunami. Nao’s diary recounts her own struggle against bullying as well as the story of her grandmother, a buddhist priest, and her uncle, a reluctant pilot in World War 2. Ozeki plays with time, place and memory to create a magical tidal wave of a story.

5. The Infatuations by Javier Marias

A metaphysical crime thriller. Marias uses the voice of a female narrator, something he said he would never do, to examine the nature of love, loss, time and storytelling.There is a playful poke at the publishing industry and the ‘conceit’ of being a novelist.

It’s a novel and once you have finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novels imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with,a plot we recall far more vividly than real events….

A masterpiece.

And now the honourable mentions…..

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1. The Night Rainbow  by Claire King

Meet Pea, who’s struggling to make sense of why her mother is so sad and what she can do to help.Quirky and evocative, this is a real page turner with a big surprise.

2. Nothing Holds Back The Night   by Delphine de Vigan

A blend of autobiography and fiction, this is a woman’s struggle to understand her mother …..and her family. Outwardly gifted, successful and privileged, privately they are torn by violence and dark secrets. Beautifully written.

3. Dear Life  by Alice Munro

The latest collection of short stories from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Thought provoking and moving, she makes every word count. Train will hit you like an express at full speed. 

So that is my round up of the year’s best……..I would love to know your top reads of 2013.