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.